Question Conventional Wisdom; or “What Color Is an Alligator?”

A black (not green) alligator.Conventional wisdom is defined as “A widely held belief on which most people act.” It’s the stuff that “everybody knows.”

Take, for example, alligators. Thanks to countless images in children’s books, cartoons, and comics, as well as all the toy versions, “everybody knows” that alligators are green.

Except they’re not. Not even a little. Take another look at the picture above. That one is black. They’re all black (except for the albinos).

You see, much of conventional wisdom, the stuff that “everybody knows is true,” isn’t necessarily true.

Conventional wisdom is sometimes an assumption that nobody questions, because nobody even realizes that it’s an assumption. Sometimes it’s close to the truth, but it misses a tiny but important detail. And sometimes—as in the case of alligators—it’s just plain wrong.

What happens when someone begins questioning the conventional wisdom? Innovation.

Microbiogen is an Australian company that has developed a way to greatly increase the output of ethanol production, and they did it by questioning the conventional wisdom.

Ethanol is usually produced by taking something high in sugar, like corn or sugar cane, and fermenting it with the yeast saccharomyces cerevisiae—basically the same yeast you use to make bread, and that brewers and vintners use to make beer or wine. The yeast eats the sugar and excretes ethanol.

However, there’s a lot of stuff left over afterwards. The ironic thing is that about 75 percent of the biomass left over after fermentation is actually made of sugar, but it’s locked up in complex long-chain molecules. The plants have turned the sugar into polymers, and yeast doesn’t eat them.

Now, you can break these sugar polymers down using current technology, but then you end up with two different types of sugars: glucose-type sugars (the stuff you sprinkle in your coffee), which yeast likes, and wood sugar, or xylose. And yeast doesn’t like xylose.

The conventional wisdom among companies experimenting with ethanol production is that yeast can’t eat xylose, that you have to genetically tweak saccharomyces cerevisiae to get it to eat xylose. So dozens of companies are spending millions of dollars trying to genetically engineer a new kind of yeast.

The scientists at Microbiogen questioned that conventional wisdom. They mixed some yeast with pure xylose, and after a time, noticed that some of the yeast cells had grown. They were feeding on the xylose. Geoff Bell (CEO of Microbiogen) explains:

“So the scientific dogma that says this yeast that we all use today can’t grow on xylose actually was not true. It could, but at such a slow rate that it was economically and industrially unimportant, but what it did do was it allowed us to use our special breeding technologies to breed these yeasts so they got better and better and better at using xylose, to the stage where we now have yeast that are actually pretty happy to be with xylose and they will grow on it and they will grow on it quite quickly.”

The conventional wisdom, that yeast could not ferment xylose, was almost true. But that almost left enough room for Microbiogen to selectively breed the yeast, creating a strain that is quite happy to ferment xylose.

Question the conventional wisdom. Identify the assumptions that everyone shares, and begin to test whether they’re true or not. You may be surprised at how much room even almost true gives you. Room enough to create something new.

For more information about Microbiogen, you can listen to an interview with Geoff Bell on Radio Australia’s Innovations site.

Image credit: Sheila Lovett/Stock.xchng.

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