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March 19, 2013

Pure Culture: Traditional Industry and Microbial Studies in Early Twentieth-Century Japan

Chemical Heritage Foundation, Brown Bag Lecture | Visit site »

Time: 12:00pm
Location: Chemical Heritage Foundation

Ubiquitous in everyday life—with people eating and fermenting miso (fermented soybean paste) and natto (fermented soybeans) at home—yet highly polished by centuries of industrial specialization and licensed monopoly in the professional brewing houses, fermentation processes are also an area of scientific expertise in Japan that forms the backbone of modern science-based bioindustry and biotechnology. The development of biosynthetic technologies that use microbes to create new substances—from enzymes to vitamins, monosodium glutamate to statins—reveals how tradition and high technology are two sides of the same coin.

This talk explores an early part of this history by looking at the upgrade of the sake and soy-sauce industries through the introduction of pure culture techniques in the first three decades of the 20th century and especially for kōji (the rice mold used in traditional brewing). Pure culture practices came to be essential to both scientific study and industrial processes, and moreover had a precedent in the techniques of tanekōji (microbial starter) makers. This talk looks at the complementary roles of public research and private industry in developing new technologies, and how established technological processes in the traditional industries contributed to the development of scientific knowledge. Finally, it examines the broader significance of the improvement of traditional industry in the formation of a scientific culture that prized innovation in microbial techniques.

Victoria Lee is a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in History of Science at Princeton University, completing a dissertation entitled “The Arts of the Microbial World: Biosynthetic Technologies in Twentieth-Century Japan.”

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