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Kefir Cultures: How Kefir Grows
Kefir grains occur when certain types of bacteria build crystals out of sugar for themselves to live in! Over time, other types of microbe – bacteria and yeast cells – find their way into the crystal structure. If they are beneficial to the bacteria that built the crystal, they are allowed to stay and the mixture of microbes help to defend each other.
The group of co-operative bacteria live together and multiply together, able to defend themselves better as a group than any single strain of bacteria could on its own.
When kefir cultures are left in the liquid that they like to live in (that is, milk for milk kefir or sugar solution for water kefir) they very quickly reproduce until there is no more sugar for them to eat. Milk kefir grains use the sugar in milk called lactose to grow, whereas water kefir grains can usually adapt to whatever sugar is available!
Kefir grains use sugar in a process called fermentation. Sugar is like the “fuel” that the bacteria and yeast in the grains use to make energy. Just like cars burn petrol, and our bodies use the food we eat, microbes must use up sugar to fuel the things that they do.
The liquid that kefir cultures grow in is called the “growth medium”. When there is not enough sugar available in the growth medium for the kefir grains to keep fermenting, they will stop producing energy. Without this energy, the grains will stop reproducing and will eventually die. While there is enough sugar though, it is taken into the grains and stored for later use by the microbes inside.
It is easiest to think of a growing kefir grain as a shell made out of sugar, containing many types of microbes. Some of these microbes are the ones that can create, extend, or fix the sugar shell. Others of them are better at defending the shell against “enemy” bacteria. As the grain takes in sugar, all the microbes inside use the energy it gives to reproduce – and so the sugar shell becomes crowded.
In order to remedy this, the bacteria that are capable of maintaining the sugar shell have to make more compartments for all the microbes to live in. As the shell becomes bigger and more complicated, it first becomes visible to the naked eye (becoming a recognisable kefir grain) and then big enough so that part of it can break away and start functioning as a separate grain.
When part of a grain breaks away like this, the bacteria who are good at rebuilding the sugar shell repair the part where it broke away and the two separate parts of the grain “heal” so that they become two completely separate grains. They then continue to use sugar and grow until they too produce more grains, and the cycle carries on.
Kefir cultures act like a living thing, but are actually made up of an enormous number of living things constantly living and dying. As long as the colonies of bacteria inside them continue to reproduce (which will happen forever if you always supply them with fresh “growth medium”), the grains themselves will live forever!
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