Bacteria that changed the world: Leuconostoc

In our Bacterial World exhibition we offer a selection of ten bacteria that have changed the world, some in profound ways. In this series of short fact-file posts we present one of the ten each week. This week’s bacteria are…

– the food-fermenters

Where they live
Vats of bubbling syrup in sugar factories first yielded samples of Leuconostoc. In 1878, a scientist called Philippe van Tieghem found and studied the bacteria, which people use to make fermented food all over the world.

Why they are important
Leuconostoc bacteria play a part in creating traditional dishes in many countries, including sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir and sourdough bread.

How they are named
Van Tieghem named Leuconostoc after another bacterium that he thought it resembled. Today, however, new bacteria are named according to rules that are governed by the International Committee on Systematics of Prokaryotes.

How they work
In a pickled food dish like sauerkraut or kimchi, Leuconostoc converts the sugars in vegetables into lactic acid, preserving them and leading to a characteristic sour taste. A similar process takes place in the starter culture for making milk into kefir, and for giving sourdough bread its flavour.

Top image: Coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of Leuconostoc citreum. Copyright: Science Photo Library

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