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Humans and yeast have a long history of productive collaboration in making a global array of fermented foodstuffs including wine, bread, and beer. Synthetic biology is now changing the shape of human-yeast work. The Sc2.0, or “synthetic yeast,” project aims to completely reengineer the Saccharomyces cerevisiae genome, designing an organism with improved capacities for scientific research and diverse industrial applications. Notably, synthetic yeast has present connections with the wine industry and likely futures in our wider foodscapes. Here I suggest that we imagine this scientific object, synthetic yeast, as an incipient cultural object by asking: what is the terroir of synthetic yeast? Terroir invokes tangled relationships among the many variably human and nonhuman, living and nonliving participants in a landscape. Terroir replaces synthetic yeast in its context of production, against scientific narratives that work to create utopian, placeless organisms. Terroir is moreover a world-building tool, not about discovering and describing a place but about constructing and connecting to one. Inquiring about terroir therefore suggests that rather than ask how far humans should go in manipulating nature, we instead ask how humans can continue to cultivate the relationships that constitute our humanity and sustain our environments. Fundamentally, I suggest that the best futures for synthetic yeast are those that connect rather than estrange; in other words, that we continue to value terroir in imagining how synthetic yeast satisfies the more-than-caloric needs of future appetites.
Environmental Humanities – Duke University Press
Published: May 1, 2018
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