How a microbe moulded mankind

The Rise of Yeast: How the sugar fungus shaped civilization by Nicholas P. Money, 2018. Oxford University Press.

I am a Botanist: All aspects of plants and plant biology are of interest to me. But, I’m particularly interested in plant-people interactions and how our relationship to/with plants influences our human existence. In that regard one of my favourite books – and a key text on my undergraduate Plants and People module – is John Perlin’s A Forest Journey. Subtitled The Story of Wood and Civilization, Perlin’s big idea is that humans are the way we are, etc. because of our relationship with trees, especially the wood that they produce. It’s a compelling narrative, told in a highly accessible, engaging – and believable! – way. In that respect, Nicholas Money’s latest fungus-inspired book, The Rise of Yeast: How the sugar fungus shaped civilisation [hereafter referred to as Rising Yeast] does the same sort of thing. But, with a microscopic fungus centre stage rather than Perlin’s macroscopic trees and wood. Arguably, any good story-teller [and both Perlin and Money are excellent raconteurs] could pen an appropriately appreciative paean to almost anything and weave a persuasive narrative about how it’s the one pivotal factor in human development. It just happens that yeast – and wood! – have much better claims to this singular honour than most other entities one could imagine. But, why is a botanist so enamoured of a book about fungi? Well, and notwithstanding their evolutionary closeness to animals, fungi don’t get much talked about by zoologists, and, since traditionally botanists have studied plants and plant-like organisms such as fungi, why not? Plus, author Money is a Professor of Botany [at Miami University, USA]. So, if fungi are good enough for that botanist, who am I to disagree?

At a mere 210 pages Rising Yeast may seem a slim volume for such an epic story, but the carefully chosen words convey all that is necessary to do the story justice. And, full of Money’s trademark humour [which is beloved of his student’s in-class], Rising Yeast’s 7 chapters are a joy to read. And that narrative flow is uninterrupted by references (although there are 18 pages of additional Notes in chapter order, which include plenty of references – approx. 100 of which are dated post-2012 – to allow the interested reader to pursue her/his own researches into particular areas of further interest). But, given the nature of the story, that extends over many thousands of years of yeast/people co-existence, sources used range far and wide, and include the 1st century of the Common Era and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History Books 17-19, Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia or The Laws of Organic Life of 1796, and Blake Hanson et al’s 21st century’s “Characterization of the bacterial and fungal microbiome in indoor dust and outdoor air samples: a pilot study” (Environ. Sci.: Processes Impacts 18: 713-724, 2016; doi: 10.1039/C5EM00639B).

In some respects Rising Yeast’s subject material covers ground similar to that previously trodden by Money’s text Triumph of the Fungi: A Rotten History, only fixating on a single fungal group (yeasts are more than just Saccharomyces cerevisiae, and number approx. 1500 spp.) this time around. And in Rising Yeast Money takes the importance of fungi to a whole new level in arguing how important this humble unicell is to an understanding of the human condition, and human conditioning. In truth no one biological entity has made us who and what we are today. Rather, it’s our interactions with the whole range of biological and abiotic factors on this planet that have influenced, shaped and moulded civilisation. But, if you have to ‘big-up’ just one biological entity, yeast [and trees/wood…] is eminently well-placed for this sort of treatment. Prof. Money is therefore to be congratulated – yet again! – for having given us such a lovingly crafted tale. And, who knows, it might even be true.

The Rise of Yeast: How the sugar fungus shaped civilisation is an amazing story, about an amazing people-non-person relationship (and by an amazing writer): Surely, Money’s The Rise of Yeast is destined to be a classic – and a thoroughly deserving award-winner!