Some of our favorite fermented foods -- wine, cheese, sourdough bread, yogurt, pickles and coffee -- are at the heart of important new research that has determined the genetics and evolution of many of the lactic acid bacteria responsible for the fermentation of foods. David Mills, a microbiologist and professor of viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis, working with 11 colleagues in the national Lactic Acid Bacteria Genomics Consortium, led a landmark study that determined the genomic DNA sequences of nine important lactic acid bacteria. According to Mills, "Understanding these sequences enables terrific scientific and evolutionary insight on this cluster of organisms and lays the foundation for huge advances that will benefit us in many ways." Tens of billions of dollars in food product sales each year involve the use of lactic acid bacteria during production, and processing methods can be time-consuming and costly. Results of the study could lead to more efficient fermentation processes for wine and foods, shorter ripening times for cheeses, more diverse and better-tasting foods, and more economical processing methods. Mills notes that, "Having the genome sequences of these organisms helps improve the production of many of the foods that people love. Researchers around the world working on lactic acid bacteria will be able to use this information to improve a long list of food products." Lactic acid bacteria have a number of functions: they occur naturally in the gut of people and animals, providing beneficial effects; they are used to ferment beverages and food, but they also can spoil food. Long before refrigeration, canning processes, or plastic wrapping materials, people relied on fermentation as a method of preserving food. Today, such fermentations with lactic acid bacteria are carried out in a more controlled fashion, not only to preserve foods but to alter the flavors in many desirable ways. A better understanding of the fundamental nature of these beneficial microorganisms enhances the ability of food scientists and artisans to innovate and produce flavorful and healthful food products. This new genomic understanding of lactic acid bacteria is important not only for food processing and preservation, but it also provides a basic understanding of lactic acid bacteria in the gut and could lead to important health discoveries. This study was published in the Oct. 17 issue of the Journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A.