2021 journal article
The diversity and function of sourdough starter microbiomes
Humans have relied on sourdough starter microbial communities to make leavened bread for thousands of years, but only a small fraction of global sourdough biodiversity has been characterized. Working with a community-scientist network of bread bakers, we determined the microbial diversity of 500 sourdough starters from four continents. In sharp contrast with widespread assumptions, we found little evidence for biogeographic patterns in starter communities. Strong co-occurrence patterns observed in situ and recreated in vitro demonstrate that microbial interactions shape sourdough community structure. Variation in dough rise rates and aromas were largely explained by acetic acid bacteria, a mostly overlooked group of sourdough microbes. Our study reveals the extent of microbial diversity in an ancient fermented food across diverse cultural and geographic backgrounds.Sourdough bread is an ancient fermented food that has sustained humans around the world for thousands of years. It is made from a sourdough ‘starter culture’ which is maintained, portioned, and shared among bread bakers around the world. The starter culture contains a community of microbes made up of yeasts and bacteria, which ferment the carbohydrates in flour and produce the carbon dioxide gas that makes the bread dough rise before baking. The different acids and enzymes produced by the microbial culture affect the bread’s flavor, texture and shelf life. However, for such a dependable staple, sourdough bread cultures and the mixture of microbes they contain have scarcely been characterized. Previous studies have looked at the composition of starter cultures from regions within Europe. But there has never been a comprehensive study of how the microbial diversity of sourdough starters varies across and between continents. To investigate this, Landis, Oliverio et al. used genetic sequencing to characterize the microbial communities of sourdough starters from the homes of 500 bread bakers in North America, Europe and Australasia. Bread makers often think their bread’s unique qualities are due to the local environment of where the sourdough starter was made. However, Landis, Oliverio et al. found that geographical location did not correlate with the diversity of the starter cultures studied. The data revealed that a group of microbes called acetic acid bacteria, which had been overlooked in past research, were relatively common in starter cultures. Moreover, starters with a greater abundance of this group of bacteria produced bread with a strong vinegar aroma and caused dough to rise at a slower rate. This research demonstrates which species of bacteria and yeast are most commonly found in sourdough starters, and suggests geographical location has little influence on the microbial diversity of these cultures. Instead, the diversity of microbes likely depends more on how the starter culture was made and how it is maintained over time.