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VIDEO: Glimpse The History Of Life In A Beer

Beer is a collaboration between two species — a multicellular animal called a human and a single-celled fungus called yeast. Both descended from the same single-celled organism.

It took time for each of them to evolve — more than a billion years — but once they did, it wasn't long before they teamed up to create beer. Now, fossil hunter Jason Osborne has added a little extra flavor to this family reunion by brewing beer with yeast taken from the remains of a 35-million-year-old whale.

A rendition of a proto-whale skeleton.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
A rendition of a proto-whale skeleton.

The special ingredient in this brew was sourced from a single vertebra, one that belonged to an ancient "proto-whale" called Eocetus wardii. They swam the waters of the Atlantic back when it covered the eastern United States, and now their bones (and the fossilized remains of many other proto-whales) can be found in Virginia swamps.

Osborne found this particular vertebra in the Pamunkey River and swabbed the bone to try to collect any yeast that might be living on it. He sent the samples to Jasper Akerboom, a microbiologist at Lost Rhino Brewing Co. in Ashburn, Va.

After lots of trial and error, Akerboom created Bone Dusters Paleo Ale. The Salt reported on the brew they created back when it was first released. I was able to drink one of the last bottles of the first run at a recent science convention.

It tasted great!

Even better, a portion of the proceeds go to Paleo Quest, a nonprofit organization that gives science equipment to underserved schools and promotes citizen science.

The Paleo Ale inspired me to put on my best David Attenborough accent (which, admittedly, is not that great) and make this video. It's a celebration of beer — and the long history of life on Earth that made beer possible.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ryan Kellman is a producer and visual reporter for NPR's science desk. Kellman joined the desk in 2014. In his first months on the job, he worked on NPR's Peabody Award-winning coverage of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. He has won several other notable awards for his work: He is a Fulbright Grant recipient, he has received a John Collier Award in Documentary Photography, and he has several first place wins in the WHNPA's Eyes of History Awards. He holds a master's degree from Ohio University's School of Visual Communication and a B.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute.
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