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Center for Plant and Life Sciences Assists With Project That Could Impact Wine Industry

November 19, 2010

Hank Johnson  
Hank Johnson, owner of Chaumette Vineyards
and Winery in Ste. Genevieve, Mo.

A local scientist and a Missouri wine producer have developed a processing agent that potentially could have a major impact on the wine industry, thanks in part to a few pieces of equipment and the staff at St. Louis Community College’s Center for Plant and Life Sciences at the Bio-Research Development and Growth (BRDG) Park, on the campus of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

Oliver Yu, Ph.D, an associate member and principal investigator at the Danforth Center, and Hank Johnson, owner of Chaumette Vineyards and Winery in Ste. Genevieve, Mo., are seeking a patent for a transgenic yeast, when used in the fermenting process, has the potential to produce a white wine with a very high level of antioxidants.

“In the United States, 45 percent of wine drinkers prefer white wine,” Johnson said. “To produce a white wine that has high antioxidant properties will be of great importance.”

Red wine has a high concentration of antioxidants because the skins and seeds ferment in the grapes' juices during the red wine-making process. This prolonged contact during fermentation produces the healthful properties of red wine not presently found in white wine. White wine also contains antioxidants, but the seeds and skins are removed early in the white wine-making process, reducing the concentration of the compound in the finished white wine.

“In the lab, Oliver had perfected the process of producing antioxidants in small quantities of juice, and it was time to prove it worked with fresh juice and larger quantities,” Johnson said. “To accomplish this, however, we needed a huge quantity of his yeast.”

To produce 50 gallons of wine, Johnson said the fresh juice needed to be inoculated by 15 billion of these special yeast cells in a very small window of time to prevent spoilage. That’s when St. Louis Community College’s Bio-Bench Contract Research Organization staff entered the project. The STLCC labs are equipped with three biofermentors, which Johnson’s son, Henry, used to harvest more than 7.7 trillion transgenic yeast cells in a four-week span.

STLCC CRO staff  
STLCC Contract Research Organization staff, from left, Becky
Staerk, Bob Morrison and Elizabeth Boedeker, with the bio-
fermentor.

“The simplicity of this was a surprise, as was the quantity,” Hank Johnson said.

He also was impressed by the facilities and the eagerness of the STLCC staff to assist with whatever was needed. His son had interned at labs at Missouri State University and said there was no comparison between MSU’s equipment and STLCC’s state-of-the-art facilities.

“The level of sophisticated science that is taught at the junior college level puts St. Louis Community College head and shoulders above the competition,” he said. “I had no idea we had this extraordinary community asset in Creve Coeur. STLCC has a very special collection of people at BRDG Park.”

When Johnson and his colleagues needed to quickly learn how to use the biofermentors, Elizabeth Boedeker, STLCC’s senior research scientist and CRO manager, found a former college instructor to teach them the basics. Bob Morrison, the equipment manager, Becky Staerk, the lab manager, and Boedeker assisted Johnson’s team in whatever ways were needed.

“We were excited that people at the Danforth Center put Hank in touch with us,” Boedeker said. “He was genuinely excited when he first saw the biofermentor and then learned what it had the capacity to do. The more people who know about what we have here, the more likely we’re going to be successful in the CRO.”

Johnson concurred. “We are completing the circle on what the Danforth Center is trying to achieve – building that partnership between research and business,” he said. “If we receive this patent, it will make big news in the wine industry.”