updated 11/10/2008 12:50:41 PM ET 2008-11-10T17:50:41

Here's a reason to raise a pint; scientists at Rice University have created beer that could extend your life.

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BioBeer, as it's called, has three genes spliced into special brewer's yeast that produce resveratrol, the chemical in red wine that is thought to protect against diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer's and other age-related conditions.

The only problem, from the students' perspective, is that many of them aren't old enough to legally consume their creation.

"We started out with a strict policy that we aren't supposed to drink anything in the lab," said Peter Nguyen, the team's graduate adviser. "We do have a strain, and verified that it has the genes, and are in the process of brewing the beer."

The eight graduate and undergraduate students created BioBeer as part of the upcoming International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. The iGEM Jamboree, as the annual meeting is called, took place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology November 8th and 9th. This year 85 teams from around the world signed up to bring the tools of the nascent field of synthetic biology to bear on a variety of problems large and small, including a bacterial vacuum cleaner or "bacuum cleaner" that can seek out and degrade harmful hydrocarbons in ground water and devices to remove arsenic from drinking water.
BioBeer, and the other iGEM projects, are "just the tip of the iceberg," says Randy Rettburg, iGEM Director. Rettburg compares the development of synthetic biology to the creation of the computer. The value of the technology used to create BioBeer isn't in creating specific applications; it's the beginning of an entirely new kind of technology.

"The goal is not to do a particular thing; its to make a new industry," he said. The students who participate in iGEM are the upcoming leaders of that industry, Rettburg adds.

For many teams their projects' end with the Jamboree. But the Rice team plans to continue their project far beyond the Jamboree; they hope to publish their results next year, and will continue to test and refine their strain of yeast, donated from a Rice alumnus who now runs the St. Arnold Brewing Company in Houston.

An iGEM requirement is that all of the biological "parts," also called BioBricks, be freely available to any team, a requirement the Rice team followed. However, they eventually hope to modify their yeast enough that they will be granted a patent. They also hope to publish their results sometime next year.

Extending human life
But don't expect to swill this brew soon. The team would need to remove certain genetic markers in the yeast cells first. FDA approval might then be necessary as well, since the yeast could be classified as a genetically modified organism.

Filtering the beer would eliminate the yeast but remove the medical benefits as well. The yeast cells produce resverstrol inside the cells. The cells have to burst for the human body to access the resverstrol. The easiest way is to let the stomach do what it does best.

Once resverstrol enters the body it binds to the SIRT1 receptors, which are located inside mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell. SIRT1 activity has been linked to combatting a variety of medical conditions, including diabetes and cancer. It may also play a role in the way calorie restriction diets have been shown to extend life in animal models.

Several drugs, including resverstrol itself and synthetic versions, like SRT1720, which is 1,000 times more powerful than resverstrol, are currently seeking FDA approval to treat diabetes by limiting weight gain and levels of cholesterol and insulin.

Those trials are using up to 500 mg of the drugs, an amount far beyond what would be found in a glass of red wine. In fact, the Rice team estimates that a glass of BioBeer would have less than the average glass of wine.

"The levels in the beer might not be high enough to have a beneficial effect," said the Rice team's faculty adviser Jonathan Silberg.

But proving that a person's life could be extended or their diabetes controlled through a combination of water, yeast, hops, malted grains and synthetic biology wasn't the goal of the project; it was just to prove that it was possible.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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