Beer, it has been said, tastes better with age. Hops, or certain strains of the plant, help impart bitterness to beers. Most beer-makers choose between these two. But home brewers typically skip hops and will instead use an herb they say does the job just as well, known as “alc or yeast.” Many are unfamiliar with the term. In fact, no one has yet isolated any living things of this order in the lab.

Dr. Filippo Zanotto-Tremblay and his colleagues at the University of Nebraska are trying to develop an organism that can produce commercially viable quantities of the right kinds of yeasts for beer-making. The journey has been a slow one. Mr. Zanotto-Tremblay has been working on the project with rats in the lab for two decades, although they cannot be safely replicated in a human. In the past, they have attempted to breed the right kind of plant, but without success. So in 2010 they turned to “illegitimate sources,” and found a bacteria named Bacillus elegans. By manipulating the gene in this organism, they found a way to grow yeast cells without damaging the DNA.

The scientists still have a long way to go, but they have already made a major breakthrough: they could begin to understand how fermentation happens. They are also hoping to move the beer-brewing process to a commercial scale. In the interim, home brewers have a better idea of what it’s like to encounter the likes of Hopsie- Lariat, Dogfish Head, and Three Floyds.