When scientists in France set out to sequence 1,000 yeast genomes, they looked at strains from all the places you might expect: beer, bread, wine.
But also: sewage, termite mounds, tree bark, the infected nail of a 4-year-old Australian girl, oil-contaminated asphalt, fermenting acorn meal in North Korea, horse dung, fruit flies, human blood, seawater, a rotting banana. For five years, two geneticists—Gianni Liti, from the Université Côte d’Azur, and Joseph Schacherer, from the Université de Strasbourg—asked for samples of Saccharomyces cerevisiae from nearly everyone they met, whether doctors in French Guiana collecting human feces or Mexican tequila makers.
“It’s easy to get a thousand wine strains,” says Schacherer, “But that’s not how we wanted to proceed.” They wanted little-known wild strains of yeast that live all over the world in a great variety of environments. And they wanted these samples to see if they could confirm their suspicions about the historical origin of yeast. The results of their analysis, published in Nature, suggest that yeast came from, of all places, China.
The most telling clue is that yeast in and around China has the most genetic diversity of anywhere in the world. Liti had already suspected this, having worked with Chinese researchers who collected yeast from remote primeval forests. But the massive sequencing confirmed just how unique yeast in East Asia are: There are more differences between yeast strains from Taiwan and Hainan—both tropical islands off the coast of China—than there are between strains in the United States and Europe, separated by the entire Atlantic Ocean.