Kombucha, tea fermented by a symbiosis between bacteria and yeast, was touted in antiquity as an elixir of life – a panacea for countless ills. Today, we know that the microbes contained within the solution are the same species that spoil wine, beer, and contaminate preserved foods. During the fermentation process, they produce a fleshy, skin-like mass called a biofilm that protects and encapsulates the community. Just as Victor Frankenstein’s patchwork creation emerged from discarded and decaying material, so too does kombucha produce a new form of cooperative life from microbes thought to be undesirable and even dangerous. And, just like the monster from Mary Shelley’s tale, the grotesque and repulsive sight of kombucha obscures a complex, sophisticated creature within.
Can the symbiotic community of yeast and bacteria in Kombucha can help to fight off pathogens that single species of microbes cannot? At ASU’s Cooperation and Conflict Lab, Kombucha is being studied as a model system for exploring microbial resource sharing and cooperation. Led by Dr. Athen Akipnis, the Cooperation and Conflict Lab examines diverse systems including human societies, cancer in multicellular bodies, the human microbiome, and cooperative multi-species communities such as kombucha to understand the fundamental principles that are shared across systems and to discover new strategies for addressing challenges. Their goal is to better understand how this fundamental tension has shaped the evolution of life and how the management of cooperation and conflict within us (and between us) can support human health and well-being.
Visitors to the exhibition will be able to view and discuss growing vats of kombucha and to observe the system at various stages of development. They will be also invited to participate in a citizen’s science project by swabbing their palms and placing them in both plain sweet tea and kombucha and then join us online to track the pathogen progression in both samples over time.
Athena Aktipis is an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at Arizona State University, co-Director of the Human Generosity Project and Director of Human and Social Evolution and co-founder of the Center for Evolution and Cancer at the University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Aktipis completed her BA at Reed College (Psychology), her PhD at University of Pennsylvania (Psychology) and post-doctoral work at University of Arizona (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology). She is a cooperation theorist, theoretical evolutionary biologist, and cancer biologist who now works at the intersection of these fields. Dr. Aktipis is the author of the forthcoming book from Princeton University Press “Evolution in the flesh: Cancer and the transformation of life.”