I just finished reading Cooked by Michael Pollen. As usual, the author uses his engaging prose to make yet another food-related topic riveting. In addition to discussing the chemistry of cooking, the book discusses the process of fermentation, which uses the natural metabolic processes of yeast or bacteria in order to make food more nutritious and less susceptible to spoilage. In fact, it could be said that the manufacture of alcohol or cheese “sets rot against rot,” when domesticated microorganisms deliberately poison their environment to make it less hospitable to competitors. We just co-opt this process and enjoy the resulting food. Actually, the distinction between brewed (beer) and distilled (liquor) alcoholic beverages is simply the fact that the alcohol-producing yeasts poison themselves beyond a certain concentration, requiring extra steps in order to increase it further.
The key point, however, is that we did not create the enzymes for the process of converting starches into ethanol… we stole them from nature. Similarly, antibiotics aren’t really “invented” as “discovered,” since cutthroat Darwinian evolution has randomly hit on solutions far beyond what we could formulate on our own: