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Basic science: understanding experiments

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# 3.1.3 Yeast experiment explained

Figure _unit3.2.3 Figure 3

You’ve seen the results of the yeast experiment, but what do these results mean?

Yeasts are microscopic, single-celled organisms, and are a type of fungus that is found all around us, in water, soil, on plants, on animals and in the air. Like all organisms, when yeasts are put in the right type of environment they will thrive; growing and reproducing.

Your experiments were designed to help you identify which environment promotes the most yeast growth. The first three glasses in your experiment contained different temperature environments (cold water, hot water and body temperature water). At very low temperatures the yeast simply does not grow but it is still alive – if the environment were to warm up a bit, it would gradually begin to grow. At very high temperatures the cells within the yeast become damaged beyond repair and even if the temperature of that environment cooled, the yeast would still be unable to grow. At optimum temperatures the yeast thrives.

Your third and fourth glasses both contained environments at optimum temperature (body temperature) for yeast growth, the difference being, the fourth glass was sealed. The variable between these two experiments was the amount of available oxygen. You may have been surprised by your results here, thinking that a living organism in an environment without oxygen cannot survive? However, you should have found that yeast grew pretty well in both experiments.

To understand why yeast was able to thrive in both conditions we need to understand the chemical process occurring in each glass during the experiment. In the three open glasses, oxygen is readily available, and from the moment you added the yeast to the sugar solution it began to chemically convert the sugar in the water and the oxygen in the air into energy, water, and carbon dioxide in a process called aerobic respiration.

Yeast is a slightly unusual organism – it is a ‘facultative anaerobe’. This means that in oxygen-free environments they can still survive. The yeast simply switches from aerobic respiration (requiring oxygen) to anaerobic respiration (not requiring oxygen) and converts its food without oxygen in a process known as fermentation. Due to the absence of oxygen, the waste products of this chemical reaction are different and this fermentation process results in carbon dioxide and ethanol.

Depending on how long you monitored your experiment for and how much space your yeast had to grow you may have noticed that, with time, the experiment sealed with cling film slowed down. This is for two reasons; firstly because less energy is produced by anaerobic respiration than by aerobic respiration and, secondly, because the ethanol produced is actually toxic to the yeast. As the ethanol concentration in the environment increases, the yeast cells begin to get damaged, slowing their growth.

The ethanol produced is a type of alcohol, so it is this process that allows us to use it to make beer and wine. When used in bread making, the yeast begins by respiring aerobically, the carbon dioxide from which makes the bread rise. Eventually the available oxygen is used up, and the yeast switches to anaerobic respiration producing alcohol and carbon dioxide instead. Do not worry though; this alcohol evaporates during the baking process, so you won’t get drunk at lunchtime from eating your sandwiches.