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Biology of Food

Microbes are ubiquitous in the environment; many of them are harmful to human and animal life, but the bulk of them have certain properties that can be harnessed to human use. Into the later category falls the yeast or fungi known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae. These particular fungi are unicellular and lack chlorophyll and consequently obtain their nutrition from the breakdown of sugars to yield carbohydrates. This particular property is harnessed in the bakery industry to make dough to rise; the yeast is added to dough and it breaks down sugar in the dough and releases carbon dioxide that leaves the dough in bubbles that force the dough to rise. This process is known as fermentation. 

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This same principle is applied to the process of making alcoholic beverages like beer, whisky, Madeira, port and rum. However, sometimes absolutely different yeast is employed in this process. The fungi Saccharomyces carlsbergensis and S. cerevisiae are employed in the process of fermentation of sugary slurries, fruit juices and other similar liquids to brew alcoholic beverages. The fermentation process requires the yeast to be added to the substrate to be fermented and left for a period of time, after which the yeasts will break down the sugars contained in the juice, which is their source of food.

In order to make beer, a source of starch is needed. In many countries barley is used; other countries use sorghum, wheat, millet and even rice (sake) to make beer. The manufacturing process of beer begins with soaking of the cereals in water and spreading them out to germinate. After a few days of exposure of these cereals to moisture, they begin to sprout roots and shoots; this process is known as malting. This process is vital because in the process of germination enzymes convert the starch in these cereals into sugars which will provide food for the yeasts. The germination is terminated by transferring the sprouts into a kiln and heating them, after which they are ground into grist. This grist has water stirred into it in very definite proportions and temperature (65°c). The water used in this process is very important as the minerals that it contains, give beer its flavor and properties; this mixture is called wort. Beer usually has a bitter taste and this taste comes from the addition of hop. The hop is added to the wort and boiled for up to two hours and extra sugar might be added depending on the kind of beer being produced. After this the wort is quickly cooled and filtered before being moved into fermenting vats where the standardized yeast is added and fermentation takes place. At temperatures of 8-12°C the fermentation process begins and carbon dioxide, which is produced, is conducted away from the container. Eventually it is stoppered and the beer begins to be carbonated by the pressure that builds up in the vat, while the fermentation process which takes about two weeks is going on. The specific gravity of the mixture is measured regularly to determine how much alcohol is in the beer and when the requisite alcohol is attained the process is terminated. The yeast settles to the bottom of the fermenter, which is cone shaped and the beer is filtered again.

If the malting process is uninterrupted, the sugar which formed the substrate for the fermentation process will be completely used up during the seeds’ metabolic process. This process begins after the seeds are immersed in water and absorb sufficient quantities of it. The entry of the water into the seeds stimulates the release of gibberellic acid, which is a plant growth hormone. Growth begins and the sugar stores are used up to fuel the plant to produce cotyledons to harness sunlight and to convert it into energy once the store of sugar is exhausted.

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In wine making the food for the microbes comes from the sugars contained in juices used in wine manufacturing. For example if grapes are crushed to make wine the sugar in the extracted juices is the source of food for the yeasts that ferment sugars to produce the alcoholic beverage.

The process of making of beer often requires the addition of sugars and some fermentative elements. However, this step has been rendered redundant in the wine making process because wine made from grapes, for instance, does not require any additives. The grapes themselves are very rich in sugar which is a readily available source of food for the microbes that are involved in the fermentation process. Additionally the yeast which the brewers employ in beer brewing is an adjunct and requires specific care and some financial investment. As to the process of making wine, since the yeast is contained in grapes and the sugar is contained in the grape juice; as a result the fermentation of wines more cost effective than that while producing beer.

A pre-existing plant is faced with extinction and due to its low numbers it is pushed to the edge of the ecosystem, but conditions change and the environment becomes arid and this forces some of the plants to synthesize a new chemical compound X. Herbivores come to eat the leaves of this plant but as it turns out, only those plants that did not synthesize chemical X are eaten, because the animals that ate the X containing plants hated the taste and it made them sick so they learnt to avoid it. Over time, the plants that have the chemical X began to flourish and gain in population as a result of the toxin that they have evolved. As such any insect that is able to eat this plant acquires some of it properties and is able to avoid being consumed by its natural predators. One of the examples is the relationship between monarch butterflies and milkweed plants. In some cases predators have developed means of avoiding toxic prey like in the case of the common garter snake and the rough-skinned newt.

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Fruits of a plant serve as a means of procreation. Plants evolved this method of seed dispersal because often animals that come to eat fruits carry the seeds far away from the parent tree, and so when they have taken this fruit and eaten it, they drop the seeds wherever the fruit was eaten. In such a way they transfer the seeds and ensure that the plant is dispersed. The seed is hidden in the kernel and it contains amygdalin which converts to cyanide in the stomach and is toxic ensuring that the animals learn not to eat the fruit. 

Squash blossoms are sold at farmers markets and are eaten stuffed with cheese and other things. The blossoms are actually the reproductive parts of the plants or the flowers. Squash plants are monoecious; this means that instead of having separate male and female plants, the squash plant has both male and female parts (anther and stigma) in one plant. As known from biology, the fertilization of flowers and plants in general happens when pollen grains move from anther to stigma, so for the squash plant those flowers serve as means of reproduction. Additionally they help prevent the plant being eaten because they contain cucurbitacins, highly toxic compounds.  This chemical is a plant steroid which might not be present in the domestic varieties, but in those plants where it is present, its bitter taste discourages herbivores from eating it.

A slice of a turkey that is consumed is actually muscle tissue; it is the tissue that is attached to bone (in most cases), and is contractile in nature and enables certain functions to be carried out. In birds these functions include: locomotion, digestion and plumage. Muscles contain myoglobin and certain proteins/fibers: actin and myosin the synchronized movement of which creates a typical contractile movement of muscles. Consumption of muscles provides us with  proteins.

The truth is that humans have always been omnivorous. The omnivorous diet is evidenced by tools discovered alongside human remains or around places of human settlements. The cutting tools and paintings were discovered in areas where humans lived; these facts provide indisputable evidence that flesh was an important part of human diet from the early moments of history. Anatomically we as humans have canines which are primarily present in flesh eating animals; in herbivores this particular kind of teeth is absent as such animals don`t need them. Their presence in humans is anatomical evidence that humans have never been exclusive herbivores (or vegans as it is known today).  The story of human migration supports this story as the migrating humans in every case were shown as active hunters to provide them and their families with a means of sustenance. In all of the sites where fossils were found, the tools and the animal remains were found there as well, which provides no evidence of a vegetarian-like diet.

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People who chose the vegetarian life style might face certain issues since plants are not always able to provide all the nutrients needed to their bodies. Some nutrients, like vitamin B12, are vital for nerve development, blood formation and cell development. When this vitamin is deficient in food for extended periods a particular kind of anemia (B12 deficiency anemia) develops as well as nerve damage. So vegetarians need to find alternative sources of food. One of the most popular sources is nutritional yeast, fortified soy milk and fortified energy bars.

As part of their standard diet, many cultures have meals that pair legumes with cereals/grains like rice. This provides a more balanced meal. Legumes like beans and lentils are rich in protein and cereals are rich in carbohydrates. When people combine these two products, they provide themselves with a balanced meal. Legumes like beans, peas and lentils are a good source of a very important amino acid, lysine; this means that although the body needs this substance it cannot synthesize it by itself. Lysine is essential for the proper growth and is one of the substances required for the synthesis of collagen. 

To increase the amount of protein in food is one of the tasks that biotechnologists regularly research and try to carry out. When they have the codon for the required trait (improved lysine content) they get the DNA sequence for the required plant and insert the specified codon into it; then they reintroduce this modified gene sequence into the plant mostly using a plasmid as a vector. After this the effectiveness of the exercise carried out will be verified by evaluating the lysine content of the plant after harvest. After this is concluded in the lab, the plant is tested and if it retains the desired qualities and shows no side effects, then it is transferred to different fields for further tests. Then cross-pollination studies are carried out to test what effect, if any, the GM food will have on the natural varieties of the plant. The main point of conflict with regard to GM foods lies in the fear among its critics that these modified foods in some way could introduce diseases that science is as yet not prepared for. Another fear is that introducing these mutated foods could in turn introduce mutations/cancers in humans. Additionally since many GM foods are seedless they will require biotech companies to provide them with seeds. Furthermore, the nature of these plants might give rise to superbugs which might become resistant to the chemicals used in controlling them, leading to a more serious food problem.

It is true that the genetically modified corn can be made resistant to bugs that affect corn, have a much shorter maturation time, and yield much more corn. These are lofty goals but the truth is that the number of allergies which resulted in populations, where GM foods had been introduced, have risen as has the number of organ specific chronic illnesses as well as decreased immunity. Low birth weight has been noted in lab animals fed with GM corn as well as high infant mortality. On the basis of this, there is sufficient evidence against GM foods to require some measures taken against production of GM foods especially since doctors have instructed that they should be avoided at least for now. (American Academy of Environmental Medicine , n.d)

Food security is an emerging problem nowadays. Several solutions have been proffered the increasing number of incidences of neoplasms and their alleged relation to GM foods. The solution might not lie in the increased production of genetically modified foods but in providing farmers in the third world countries with better farming technology; tractors and other machinery, better agricultural practices and investment in better storage facilities must be provided to eliminate the massive amounts of food being wasted every year.

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