Newsletter: January 29, 2019

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.

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coffee and beansCoffee compounds join forces to fight Parkinson’s
Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia—two progressive and currently incurable diseases—may soon receive a one-two punch, thanks to the caffeine in coffee along with another compound found in the waxy coating of coffee beans.

Rutgers University scientists, who detailed their discovery in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, believe the combination of the two compounds has the potential to become a therapeutic option to slow brain degeneration. Lead author M. Maral Mouradian, director of the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School Institute for Neurological Therapeutics, says the research began by examining “a protein called alpha-synuclein, which accumulates as abnormal aggregates in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease (PD) and Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB).”

The form that aggregates, explains Mouradian, is modified by a process called phosphorylation, which adds a phosphate group to the protein. “This addition,” she says, “accelerates the tendency of alpha-synuclein to mis-fold and aggregate. Therefore, our goal has been to minimize the degree of alpha-synuclein phosphorylation.” Mouradian and her fellow researchers focused on the catalyst (enzyme) that removes the phosphate group (phosphatase) and identified the specific isoform (form) of protein phosphatase 2A (PP2A).

“Through a series of studies,” she says, “we found a compound in coffee, called EHT (eicosanoyl-5-hydroxytryptamide), that enhances the activity of PP2A. The reason we looked at coffee is because of epidemiological data showing reduced risk of developing PD among people who consume coffee. We showed that EHT indeed protects the brain in mouse models of PD and DLB. In the present study, we wanted to find out if there is synergy between EHT and caffeine (which had been presumed to be the protective agent in coffee).”

To confirm the synergistic relationship, the scientists administered low doses of the two compounds to mice, both separately and in combination. Individually, no clear benefit was noted from either compound in sub-therapeutic doses. However, says Mouradian, “the combination protected the brain in two models of PD and DLB, one in which the protein is overexpressed throughout the brain, and the other involving the injection of pathologic fibrils of alpha-synuclein in a brain region and following the spread of that pathology to other brain regions, a process known as propagation. We also showed the same effect in simple cell model experiments and showed that the effect was through enhancing PP2A activity.”

The study results indicate that caffeine is not the only protective agent in coffee and that EHT provides consistent beneficial effects in the models. Mouradian notes that EHT is found in a variety of coffee types in varying amounts and that “caffeine does not need to be consumed in large amounts for it to protect the brain in PD so long as it is taken in combination with EHT. This can minimize the negative health consequences of consuming too much caffeine.” 


probioticsScientists create protective gel for probiotics
Prebiotics (fermentable fibers) and probiotics (beneficial microbes) are key to establishing a healthy gut microbiome. While most dietary prebiotics can successfully traverse the digestive system, most dietary probiotics cannot survive digestion. Scientists at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences have developed a gel to help probiotics reach their destination: the colon.

Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when ingested, populate the colon with good microbes that benefit the host. However, very few, if any, probiotics can survive the journey through the gastrointestinal tract: It is a harsh environment consisting of digestive enzymes, bile salts, and hydrochloric acid that destroys both pathogenic and beneficial microorganisms. Researchers had tried encapsulating probiotics in alginate, a polysaccharide found in brown algae, to protect the beneficial microbes during digestion, but they found that alginate also breaks down easily in the stomach.

Hao Zhang and his research collaborators recently tried adding cellulose to the alginate capsule to augment its stability. Upon placing the cellulose-alginate encapsulated probiotics into a simulated stomach acid–like environment, Zhang and his colleagues found that the cellulose-alginate mixture held onto the probiotics. They also determined that the mixture properly released the bacteria in a simulated intestine environment. As a next step, the scientists plan to test this probiotic encapsulation system in animals.  

The research study was published in ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering.


Quinoa in fieldSalt tolerance in quinoa from a molecular perspective
Soil salinity contributes to crop loss around the world and is a threat to the global food supply. There are some plants, though, that are naturally more salt tolerant than others and can thrive in soil that is high in sodium chloride. Quinoa is one such plant that has a salt tolerance trait, giving it the ability to sequester salt in specialized cells. An international team of researchers has gained some insights into the molecular mechanism behind this capability.

Quinoa and other salt-tolerant plants collect salt in structures called epidermal bladder cells. Previous work has shown that when these cells are removed, quinoa becomes sensitive to salt. For the current study, the researchers examined the pathway that the sodium and chloride ions travel from the root to the leaves (where the epidermal bladder cells are located) and how these ions are directed to their final destination. They learned how certain transport proteins help to move the ions along through what is called the sodium channel and they identified genes that are expressed in this process. The hope is that the results of the study and the knowledge gained may help in efforts to selectively breed salt-tolerant crops.  

Read more about the research in Current Biology.

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Published every Tuesday, this newsletter explores what are, arguably, the next big things in the science of food.