Primordial Soup

Sandor Katz, the bestselling author of The Art of Fermentation, is one of the key voices helping to shift perspectives toward acknowledging the importance of microbes in our understanding of our evolution, our culture and ourselves. Listen here to his seminal paper “Fermentation as Co-Evolutionary Force”.

It all started with some molecules that were bumping into themselves. You, me – all of it. The idea of the beginning of life on Earth as monocellular organisms arising in “some warm little pond” was first mentioned by Charles Darwin in the late nineteenth century. In 1929 JBS Haldane called the prebiotic liquid mix of organic sugars and proteins, from which primitive microorganisms evolved, a “hot dilute soup”. As molecules became cells, a process for energy production was needed and so fermentation became the process that sustained these cells. 

Sandor Katz. Photo © Jacqueline Schlossman/READYLUCK

The world may have changed a lot in these 3.5 billion years, but this process has not. The American food writer and activist, Sandor Katz, known also as a “fermentation revivalist”, is a global expert in this field and has made metabolic processes the core of his writing and teaching for over 20 years. In 2010 he wrote a paper called “Fermentation as a Co-evolutionary Force”, which he presented at the Oxford Symposium that year. The lecture later went on to become the introduction to his bestselling book The Art of Fermentation.

Humans did not create fermentation: it would be more accurate to state that fermentation created us.

In this paper, Katz states that fermentation, which he broadly defines as the transformation of food by bacteria and fungi, “has played an instrumental role in human cultural evolution… It is important to recognize, however,” he continues, “that fermentation is a natural phenomenon much broader than human culinary practices. Our own bodily cells are capable of fermentation. Humans did not create fermentation: it would be more accurate to state that fermentation created us.” 

Going beyond the food and beverage context in this seminal paper, Katz brings in additional voices of biologists and molecular biologists from around the world to open our eyes to the co-evolutionary force of fermentation and the networks this understanding reveals: “Because we have co-evolved with both plants and animals by eating and thus interacting with them, our histories encompass not only the plants and animals themselves but their microbial associates. It is the ubiquitous presence of these lifeforms, present from the very beginning but invisible until the past few centuries, which results in the ferments, nearly all prehistoric, that we love to eat and drink. […] The ferment itself, and our ability to produce it, is as much a product of co-evolution as the person, plant, yeast or bacteria. Thus co-evolution encompasses even culture.”

Listen here to Sandor Katz’s voice on the extended landscape of the human microbiome in this wonderful podcast version of his paper “Fermentation as Co-Evolutionary Force”, produced as part of the Ox Tales series by Anna Sigrithur.

Sandor Katz, “Fermentation as Co-Evolutionary Force”, Ox Tales podcast series.
Shared with kind permission from the Oxford Food Symposium

Title video: “Bacteria and Fungi Time-Lapse 1” © Wim van Eck

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