(Some of) the trouble with tech transfer

Technology transfer is an old-fashioned idea and I think we should get rid of it. Not because it’s old, but because it doesn’t work. Technology transfer assumes that the research world looks like the practice world, and you just need to “transfer” research from one place to the other. The obvious problem is that the research world doesn’t (or doesn’t always) look like the practical industry world. Folks are doing different things in different places, and if we’re going to make sense of how (or whether) they relate to each other, we’re going to have to do work to make that happen. “Research mapping*” to “technology transfer,” because mapping is an active task you perform when you want to figure out how to get from one place to another, and its inevitable that you create some new information in the process.

Technology transfer also tends to imply the idea that whatever is being transferred is good and works. The experts come up with something and then pass it on down the line for use by everyone else. In some ways, that’s great: research is great; sharing is great; getting science to do stuff in practice is great. What’s less great is the ease with which sharing can turn into making assumptions about what someone else will do with your information. You know how it works, you’re going to tell other people how it works, but maybe sometimes they see other ways and those work pretty well too. And if they’re experts in how the practical industry world works, because it’s their life to work with them, then their opinions probably count for a lot.

The gist of the article I just published in the Journal of Wine Research is that Washington state winemakers and growers use research in a lot of different ways, and it’s probably best to respect that – both in terms of supporting the diversity of the industry and in the interest of getting people to listen to the scientists. The point is simple, but it’s packaged with some interesting interview and survey data about what scientific resources winemakers/growers are using and how they see the role of science in their practices. The official Journal of Wine Research version is behind a paywall, but I’ve posted an author’s manuscript version here (please cite the version of record from JWR). I’d be interested in your thoughts.**

This article includes data I hope folks will find useful for thinking about doing industry-oriented science communication, but only starts to hint at the bigger arguments for doing science communication differently, as mapping instead of as tech transfer. The rest? Well, my official dissertation submission date is November 3, 2016, but a few more articles are working their way through the system in the meantime.


*With apologies to any Deleuzians, because this usage conflicts with Deleuze’s ideas about mapping. I’m still working out whether and how I’m going to alter my terminology to deal with that.

**The trouble with publishing articles as you go through your PhD, I find, is that the way I think about this and my research on the whole has changed a fair bit since I wrote and submitted this article about a year ago. If you’re interested in talking theory about technology transfer, research utilization, or the relationships between scientific and industry practice, please give me a ring. I’d love to chat, and this article won’t necessarily give you a good picture of my current ideas on those subjects.

New, better pictures of what bacteria are doing during fermentation

Short: Microbiologists, using new techniques, are finding that actively fermenting grape musts contain a much wider variety of bacteria than we’ve previously recognized.

Longer: Yeast, being the main actors in alcoholic fermentation, are going to get most of the attention during it. But that’s not the only reason why we don’t know a whole lot about bacteria during fermentation. They’re hard to grow. Doing microbiology the classic way means collecting samples and growing bacteria from them in petri dishes, then identifying whatever grows in the dish. I used to spend measurable fractions of my life “making plates” by mixing Jell-o for bacteria and pouring it into hundreds of little plastic dishes. A main activity of microbiology is waiting for stuff to grow on your plates. The logic here is simple, understandable, and incredibly silly. Bacteria are unbelievably diverse and incredibly specific to their environments. It’s balderdash to think that all of them are going to grow happily, on command, in a dish, in a week or two (if you don’t just throw Monday’s plates out on Friday, which sometimes happens).

The petri dish method is just fine* for working with well-identified and properly house-trained bacteria. It’s pretty horrible for trying to identify all of the unknown bacteria growing in some mystery environment. Only when alternatives became available did microbiology really start coming to terms with the magnitude of what it had been missing. Today, looking for bacterial “unknowns” means identifying bacterial DNA, which is more direct and gives you a better chance of picking up punk microbes that aren’t willing to grow nicely in captivity. Search for bacterial DNA in a vat of actively fermenting grape and you’ll find evidence of a lot more bacteria than the conventional mechanism ever had us thinking about.

Using these techniques, Bokulich, Mills, & co. at UC Davis have been mapping bacterial communities in wineries around the calendar year, wineries across California, and wines with more and less SO2. New research (open-access article), from a (mostly) Washington state-based group, has pointed out something simpler and yet very worth knowing: fermenting wine contains scads more bacteria then we’d ever thought about before. They used “next generation sequencing”** techniques to take snapshots of bacterial communities five times through two weeks of fermentation.

The authors make some questionable comparisons of patterns of bacterial growth between their two study conditions – all the grapes involved were organically grown Riesling, but half were fermented “organically” without added SO2 and the other “conventionally” with SO2. But the experiment involved only a single comparison: two vats, same batch of grapes. Limited replications is no doubt a trade-off with fermenting in realistic 15,000 gallon volumes instead of the completely unrealistic five-gallon carboys too common in much wine research. Regardless, it’s going to take many more comparisons before it’s possible to talk meaningfully about differences in bacterial abundance with and without added SO2.

Here’s why this research is still important. Right now, wine bacteriology is mostly two things: malolactic fermentation, where bacteria are the good guys (unless you’re trying to prevent MLF and it’s happening anyway), and spoilage by a pretty well-known set of culprits, especially acetic acid bacteria. That’s a bit like saying that all Americans are either New York City firefighters or drug dealers. There is a whole lot more going on in both cases. And some of our persistent wine mysteries – why some fermentations stick, some go faster or slower, some produce one aroma and others another – may owe something to that unseen majority. If microbiologists start seeing them, maybe we’ll find out what.

*It’s also time-consuming, labor-intensive, and incredibly wasteful in terms of the masses of plastic that get thrown away. Sometimes you want to do an experiment and can’t because you don’t have enough plates. Or the results you get at 6:00 pm suggest an experiment you should do tomorrow for which you’ll need more plates and you stay until 9:00 pm going through the several-hour process of making more, or someone else uses your plates without telling you, or your plates get contaminated with mold and you have to throw a big batch out.

**As opposed to “deep space nine” sequencing techniques, which are expected to come out next season, will take longer and be more sophisticated, but will never be quite as cool as its predecessor because Patrick Stewart isn’t involved.

New research: Wine allergies exist. You probably don’t have them.

A lot of people seem to think that they’re allergic to wine. Most probably aren’t. Our current best evidence on sulfites says that only people with severe asthma have any real cause to worry and, given the presence of sulfites in many other common foods – most dried fruit, many cured meats, salad bars – it’s something they surely know before ever meeting their first glass of wine. I’m one of a subset of people who react dramatically to biogenic amines, molecules produced by some yeast and bacteria that mimic human hormones and cause me to go hot and red in the face and sprout a bad headache after only a few sips of an affected wine (embarrassing when people think I’m tipsy after half a glass). Another subset (including many Asian people) honest-to-goodness doesn’t metabolize alcohol well, thanks to a genetically encoded difference in an important enzyme, and turns hot, red, and otherwise uncomfortable in response to any alcohol. None of these are actually allergies.

So, do wine allergies actually exist? Yes.

Back in 2012, a group of German epidemiologists sent out a survey asking random adult residents of Mainz whether they had experienced symptoms of “wine intolerance.” 7.2% of people who responded to the survey attested to some form of wine intolerance. I wrote about some problems with the study on Palate Press: the possibility that respondents might have confused “intolerance” symptoms with a hangover, the likelihood that the survey overestimated people with problems because they’re the most likely to respond (and three-quarters of people sent the survey didn’t respond), the power of suggestion. Still, the study begs the question. How many people really are allergic to wine?

The same group has followed up with more research aimed at answering that question. Of the 68 people marked as “wine intolerant” by the original survey, they convinced 19 to sit down, along with ten non-intolerant controls (mostly women), for a battery of allergy testing. In addition to the familiar skin prick test – inject a bit of potential allergen X under your skin to see if you come up red and swollen – they also used several blood tests all looking for the release of inflammatory molecules in response to wine and grape products, including riesling, pinot gris, pinot noir, and dornfelder wine. All of these tests measure reactions to grape proteins. These are true allergies, proteins that set off an immune response, not reactions to alcohol, biogenic amines, sulfites, or allergies to processing agents such as egg whites or milk proteins.

Seven of the 26 people prick-tested developed swelling in response to at least one of the wine or grape samples, four to wine and three just to grapes. 13 developed antibodies in response to grapes, but only nine of them had reported symptoms; the other four were in the asymptomatic control group. Only one person was wine allergy-positive in all four different types of tests.

The conclusion? People can be allergic to specific kinds of grapes, wines, or both, just as people can be allergic to citrus fruit, tomatoes, or olives. It’s probably not very common. This study was small, far too small to say anything about how common wine allergies are in Germany let alone amongst other ethnic groups. Knowing how to respond to discrepancies among the tests, and between the tests and people’s reported symptoms, is an issue, too. Writing up their results for publication, the researchers ignored it. But again, no matter what exactly is going on there, we’re back at the first conclusion. Grapes, and wine, seem to be like other foods as far as allergies go. You might well have a wine allergy, or an allergy to red or white wine, or to a specific variety. You probably don’t.