Florida students trying to take toxins out of wine

By Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects
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It's something that could take the "happy" right out of your happy hour. Tiny cancer-causing toxins  are likely in  that glass of wine you may enjoy.  The problem starts in the vineyard where ochratoxin is secreted by vineyard mold.  It's a mold that grows in a warm, humid environment.

"So the mold grows on the grapes and produces this toxin," said Dr. Aaron Welch, FIU Cellular & Mollecular Biology. "When it grows on the grape and when they crush the grapes, it gets into the wine."

Ochratoxin is regulated in Europe, but not in bottles of wine from the United States. Enter the FIU Chaplin School of Hospitality and its new wine lab where students are looking for ways to fight the toxin.

"What we are doing in this lab is trying to create unique strains of yeast, yeast with unique characteristics that will make wine better," explained FIU student Damien Blanco.

All wine is made with yeast. It's what turns the sugar in these berries into alcohol. What Welch and his team are trying to do is genetically alter the yeast to also kill the toxin.

"The yeast that we want to make will be a good fermenter, so it will produce good alcohol from the sugars and it will get rid of the toxin," he explained.

The approach here is  that food and drinks should be healthier and more environmentally friendly.

"It's all about the customer experience. Hospitality and tourism are about what people enjoy, whether it's leisure, whether it's a business meeting or otherwise, and  people are more concerned today than ever before

about  enjoying themselves in a healthful way," explained FIU's Chaplin School Dean, Mike Hampton.

Welch hopes to have this new yeast isolated in less than a year  and ready for him and FIU to patent and then sell. 

By the way, other research that the hospitality school is spearheading includes how to make delicious foods that don't cause food allergies.  Also, students will be partnering with medical students to see which foods help cancer patients  feel better during treatment.

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