Julie Redmond, Dublin, UK
Chemists from the University of California, Irvine (UCL), the University of Western Australia (UWA) and Flinders University have figured out how to unboil egg whites—an innovation that could dramatically reduce costs for cancer treatments, food production and other segments of the US$160 billion global biotechnology industry.
“Yes, we have invented a way to unboil a hen egg,” said Gregory Weiss, UCI professor of chemistry and molecular biology and biochemistry. “In our paper, we describe a device for pulling apart tangled proteins and allowing them to refold. We start with egg whites boiled for 20 minutes at 90 degrees C and return a key protein in the egg to working order.”
Like many researchers, he has struggled to efficiently produce or recycle valuable molecular proteins that have a wide range of applications but which frequently ‘misfold’ into structurally incorrect shapes when they are formed, rendering them useless.
“It is not so much that we are interested in processing the eggs; that is just demonstrating how powerful this process is,” he said. “The real problem is there are lots of cases of gummy proteins that you spend way too much time scraping off your test tubes, and you want some means of recovering that material.”
But older methods are expensive and time-consuming: The equivalent of dialysis at the molecular level must be done for about four days. “The new process takes minutes,” Mr Weiss noted. “It speeds things up by a factor of thousands.”
To re-create a clear protein known as lysozyme once an egg has been boiled, he and his colleagues add a urea substance that chews away at the whites, liquefying the solid material.
That is half the process. At the molecular level, protein bits are still balled up into unusable masses. The scientists then employ a vortex fluid device, a high-powered machine designed by Professor Colin Raston’s laboratory at South Australia’s Flinders University. Shear stress within thin, microfluidic films is applied to those tiny pieces, forcing them back into untangled, proper form.
The method has the potential of transforming industrial and research production of proteins. For example, industrial cheese makers, farmers, and others who use recombinant proteins will be able to streamline their manufacturing process and achieve greater returns.