Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 10.djvu/147

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been validated.
135
FERMENTATION AND DISEASE.

it sooner or later ferments; but the chances are, that the produce of that fermentation, instead of being agreeable, would be disgusting to the taste. By a rare accident we might get the true alcoholic fermentation, but the odds against obtaining it would be enormous. Pure air acting upon a lifeless liquid will never provoke fermentation; but our ordinary air is the vehicle of numberless germs which act as ferments when they fall into appropriate infusions. Some of them produce acidity, some putrefaction. The germs of our yeast-plant are also in the air; but so sparingly distributed that an infusion like beer-wort, exposed to the air, is almost sure to be taken possession of by foreign organisms. In fact, the maladies of beer are wholly due to the admixture of these objectionable ferments, whose forms and modes of nutrition differ materially from those of the true leaven of beer.

Working in an atmosphere charged with the germs of these organisms, you can understand how easy it is to fall into error in studying the action of any one of them. Indeed, it is only the most accomplished experimenter, who, moreover, avails himself of every means of checking his conclusions, that can walk without tripping through this land of pitfalls. Such a man is the French chemist Pasteur. He has taught us how to separate the commingled ferments of our air, and to study their pure individual action. Guided by him, let us fix our attention more particularly upon the growth and action of the true yeast-plant under different conditions. Let it be sown in a fermentable liquid, which is supplied with plenty of pure air. The plant will nourish in the aërated infusion, and produce large quantities of carbonic-acid gas—a compound, as you know, of carbon and oxygen. The oxygen thus consumed by the plant is the free oxygen of the air, which we suppose to be abundantly supplied to the liquid. The action is so far similar to the respiration of animals, which inspire oxygen and expire carbonic acid. If we examine the liquid even when the vigor of the plant has reached its maximum, we hardly find in it a trace of alcohol. The yeast has grown and flourished, but it has almost ceased to act as a ferment. And could every individual yeast-cell seize, without any impediment, free oxygen from the surrounding liquid, it is certain that it would cease to act as a ferment altogether.

What, then, are the conditions under which the yeast-plant must be placed so that it may display its characteristic quality? Reflection on the facts already referred to suggests a reply, and rigid experiment confirms the suggestion. Consider the Alpine cherries in their closed vessels. Consider the beer in its barrels, with a single small aperture open to the air, through which it is observed not to imbibe oxygen, but to pour forth carbonic acid. Whence come the volumes of oxygen necessary to the production of this latter gas? The small quantity of atmospheric air dissolved in the wort and overlying it would be totally incompetent to supply the necessary oxygen.