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The Preservative Sorbic Acid Targets Respiration, Explaining the Resistance of Fermentative Spoilage Yeast Species

The Preservative Sorbic Acid Targets Respiration, Explaining the Resistance of Fermentative Spoilage Yeast Species Thumbnail


Malcolm Stratford


Ivey A. Geoghegan

David B. Archer

Professor of Eukaryotic Microbiology


Copyright © 2020 Stratford et al. A small number (10 to 20) of yeast species cause major spoilage in foods. Spoilage yeasts of soft drinks are resistant to preservatives like sorbic acid, and they are highly fermentative, generating large amounts of carbon dioxide gas. Conversely, many yeast species derive energy from respiration only, and most of these are sorbic acid sensitive and so prevented from causing spoilage. This led us to hypothesize that sorbic acid may specifically inhibit respiration. Tests with respirofermentative yeasts showed that sorbic acid was more inhibitory to both Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Zygosaccharomyces bailii during respiration (of glycerol) than during fermentation (of glucose). The respiration-only species Rhodotorula glutinis was equally sensitive when growing on either carbon source, suggesting that ability to ferment glucose specifically enables sorbic acid-resistant growth. Sorbic acid inhibited the respiration process more strongly than fermentation. We present a data set supporting a correlation between the level of fermentation and sorbic acid resistance across 191 yeast species. Other weak acids, C2 to C8, inhibited respiration in accordance with their partition coefficients, suggesting that effects on mitochondrial respiration were related to membrane localization rather than cytosolic acidification. Supporting this, we present evidence that sorbic acid causes production of reactive oxygen species, the formation of petite (mitochondrion-defective) cells, and Fe-S cluster defects. This work rationalizes why yeasts that can grow in sorbic acid-preserved foods tend to be fermentative in nature. This may inform more-targeted approaches for tackling these spoilage organisms, particularly as the industry migrates to lower-sugar drinks, which could favor respiration over fermentation in many spoilage yeasts.IMPORTANCE Spoilage by yeasts and molds is a major contributor to food and drink waste, which undermines food security. Weak acid preservatives like sorbic acid help to stop spoilage, but some yeasts, commonly associated with spoilage, are resistant to sorbic acid. Different yeasts generate energy for growth by the processes of respiration and/or fermentation. Here, we show that sorbic acid targets the process of respiration, so fermenting yeasts are more resistant. Fermentative yeasts are also those usually found in spoilage incidents. This insight helps to explain the spoilage of sorbic acid-preserved foods by yeasts and can inform new strategies for effective control. This is timely as the sugar content of products like soft drinks is being lowered, which may favor respiration over fermentation in key spoilage yeasts.


Stratford, M., Vallières, C., Geoghegan, I. A., Archer, D. B., & Avery, S. V. (2020). The Preservative Sorbic Acid Targets Respiration, Explaining the Resistance of Fermentative Spoilage Yeast Species. mSphere, 5(3),

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date May 10, 2020
Online Publication Date May 27, 2020
Publication Date May 27, 2020
Deposit Date May 28, 2020
Publicly Available Date May 28, 2020
Journal mSphere
Electronic ISSN 2379-5042
Publisher American Society for Microbiology
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 5
Issue 3
Public URL
Publisher URL


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