Newsletter: July 10, 2018

Researched and written weekly by the editorial team of Food Technology magazine, the IFTNEXT Newsletter explores what are, arguably, the next big things in the science of food through original reporting of scientific breakthroughs, leading-edge technology, novel food components, and transdisciplinary R&D.


More evidence that staying well-caffeinated is good for you
Coffee lovers have a new reason to feel good about their caffeine habit. Research findings published last month in the journal PLOS Biology help to explain the mechanism by which caffeine reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and suggests that a concentration equivalent to four cups of coffee daily may be the amount needed to produce the benefit.  

Researchers Judith Haendeler and Joachim Altschmied of the Medical Faculty, Heinrich-Heine University and the IUF-Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine in Dusseldorf, Germany, and their colleagues showed that caffeine induced the movement of a regulatory protein called p27 into mitochondria, and that this served to enhance mitochondrial function and protect cardiovascular cells from damage. Mitochondria are cells’ energy powerhouses, the researchers noted.   

“Our results indicate a new mode of action for caffeine, one that promotes protection and repair of heart muscle through the action of mitochondrial p27,” said Haendeler. She suggests that the researchers’ finding could lead to new strategies for protecting the heart muscle from damage, including a potential recommendation of caffeine consumption to benefit elderly individuals. “Furthermore,” she observed, “enhancing mitochondrial p27 could serve as a potential therapeutic strategy not only in cardiovascular diseases, but also in improving health span.”  

The German researchers arrived at their conclusions after a series of mouse studies. Haendeler and Altschmied said that additional mouse studies are planned. “We will design a mouse in which all p27 is only localized in the mitochondria on an otherwise p27-deficient background and will set an experimental myocardial infarction and determine the infarct size in those mice and their wild type and knockout littermates,” they wrote in response to an IFTNEXT newsletter query. (A knockout mouse is a genetically modified laboratory mouse in which one or more genes have been “knocked out” or inactivated.) “We will also design a cell-permeable, recombinant p27 and test its effects ex vivo and in vivo in mice. 

“We have to find better ways to improve mitochondrial functionality in the heart and the vessels … but we have first to further understand the underlying mechanisms,” the researchers added.


Baby Eating Yogurt

Protein source affects infant growth during first year of life
Nutrition received during infancy can affect an individual’s growth pattern during childhood and beyond. In a study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, it was found that infants fed a diet high in meat-based protein experienced greater growth than those fed a dairy-based diet.  

The researchers studied formula-fed infants whose diets were supplemented with either meat purees or yogurt and cheese. The infants were measured for length, weight, and head circumference at various intervals between five and 12 months of age.  

Although both groups were reported to consume a similar number of total calories and amounts of protein and fat, the infants who received meat-based complementary foods experienced greater growth in length. In addition, length-for-age increased in the meat group and declined in the dairy group. However, weight-for-length increased significantly in the dairy group compared with the meat group.  

Explains Minghua Tang, lead author of the study, “Protein quality (source) significantly impacts infant growth trajectories. A meat-based complementary diet consumed by formula-fed infants promotes linear growth. In terms of dietary guidance for infants, we need to consider not only quantity, but also quality of protein.”  

Although the study results indicate that protein sources may play an important role in regulating growth and weight, and that there is potential value in introducing meat-based protein early, Tang cautions, “We need more mechanistic investigations of the relation between protein quality and infant growth.”  


Legos of Life
Image courtesy of Vikas Nanda/Rutgers
Robert Wood Johnson Medical School

Scientists discover building blocks of living organisms
Scientists at Rutgers University have discovered four chemical structures—a family of oxidoreductases—that serve as the building blocks of all proteins within every living organism. These structural building blocks have descended through time to catalyze reactions that are critical for life. 

“In our study we tried to uncover the origin and evolution of oxidoreductases,” says Hagai Raanan, a post-doctoral research associate in the environmental biophysics and molecular ecology laboratory at Rutgers University and lead author of the study. “This family of proteins catalyze electron transfer reactions that ultimately provide the energy for life. A limited set of ancestral protein-metal modules are presumably the building blocks … that evolved into this diverse protein family.” Raanan and the study’s co-authors have identified four of them: a bacterial ferredoxin, cytochrome C, symerythrin, and plastocyanin-type fold. “These four modules can be observed in nature as small proteins but also as part of large protein complexes,” Raanan explains. He estimates that these proteins first emerged 2.9 billion to 3.9 billion years ago. 

“It is important to remember that these building blocks [do] not always function as an isolated unit. These modules are protein folds that are part of larger protein complexes that [are] involve[d] in many metabolic pathways,” Raanan says. “Thus, these modules do not have only one function in biology, but they are part of many protein complexes that catalyze electron transfer reactions. In fact, the multi-functionality of these folds is, in part, what helped us to identify them as the basic building blocks of life.” 

These basic building blocks of life may be able to play a role in improving crops to meet the growing demand for food and biofuel. “Food is our way to get nutrition and energy,” Raanan asserts. “[T]he knowledge gained by this type of research will help to improve food production technologies. The improvement of our understanding of metal-protein folds and function can be used to create natural inspired synthetic electron transfer proteins that ultimately will help to create new green energy technologies. Currently, our team is working on several exciting bioengineered peptides that are inspired by this research and constitute a significant advancement in the field of protein design of electron transfer proteins,” Raanan reveals.