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Bensasson uses yeast to unlock life’s greatest mysteries

Jake Strickland

What comes to mind when you think of yeast? To a baker, it might mean the ability to make their dough rise. A brewmaster might associate it with the fermentation of beer and wine. Many others may associate these types of fungus with one dreaded infection or another.

Yeast serves many functions. For the University of Georgia’s Douda Bensasson, it’s all of these—and more.

An associate professor in the Franklin College of Arts & Science’s Department of Plant Biology, Bensasson uses yeast to unlock some of life’s greatest mysteries. Among the questions she seeks to answer is one concerning the fate of some of earth’s species. How will different species cope with the impacts of a warming climate? Will they adapt or go extinct?

“Some yeasts adapt well to different climates, while others don’t,” Bensasson explained. “In our lab, we are using that as our testing ramp to try and figure out what the rules are about which species make it and which species don’t, who is able to migrate and who cannot.”

In the lab, Bensasson and her team can finely control yeasts’ growing conditions, yielding illuminating results about a species’ ability to survive in a world where weather patterns are becoming more extreme and habitats are uprooted. The results could apply to other species that are difficult to study, such as endangered animals or plants, as well as other microscopic fungi.

Another area of rising concern is fungal disease in areas experiencing drastic climate change. To address these concerns, Bensasson has broadened her research into pathogens.

“This is a sweet spot for me,” Bensasson said. “I am well positioned to help in that area in terms of identifying some kind of warning system for new fungal diseases, for example, by using PCR tests to identify pathogenic yeast in wastewater, food or agriculture.”

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Image: Douda Bensasson (Photo by Peter Frey)

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