Erin McKenney


Disruption through democratization: how citizen science transforms sourdough research

Erin A. McKenney

Department of Applied Ecology, North Carolina State University

In 2016 the Dunn lab at NC State University set out to map the microbial diversity of starters around the world. We partnered with researchers in Boston and Boulder to collect and study 500 starters from 17 countries, and our results upended many assumptions held by bakers. It turns out that the microbes themselves drive the patterns of biodiversity – not human management. But throughout the global project, bakers shared their best practices as well as their questions, inspiring me to develop a citizen science project that would simultaneously engage students in authentic research and help address two of bakers’ most pressing questions: when is a starter ready to bake with, and what effect does flour have? To do this, I worked closely with an undergraduate student and teachers at 4 middle schools in Raleigh, to study sourdough starters grown from 10 different types of flour. We measured each starter’s height and pH, described the aromas produced by each starter each day, and used DNA sequencing to characterize the bacterial communities associated with these functional traits. Our results substantiate common baking practices, reveal novel bacteria and aromas associated with different flour types, and set the stage for future research and applications.

Dr. Erin McKenney studies how microbial communities form over time and how they adapt to their environments. Over the past decade she has collected fecal samples from over 250 animals housed at 4 different zoos, to investigate the effects of host diet and lineage. More recently, she has expanded her research to sourdough and other fermented foods. Microbial cultures lie at the heart of human cultures, and fermented foods provide accessible systems for studying microbiology and nutrition without formal laboratory equipment. By combining citizen science and global collaborations, Erin uses research to empower students of all ages.