Newsletter: February 6, 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.

Engineering low-gluten wheat with CRISPR/Cas9
CRISPRWheat is one of the most widely grown crops around the world and an ingredient in bakery applications and many other food products. However, people with the autoimmune disorder, celiac disease, cannot consume wheat (or barley and rye) because the gluten in these grains will trigger the autoimmune response. Researchers developed a low-gluten, nontransgenic wheat using CRISPR/Cas9 technology. Their findings are published in Plant Biotechnology Journal

Francisco Barro, professor of research at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, Córdoba, Spain, explains how his research team used CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology to reduce the proteins that could trigger an adverse response to gluten in wheat seed kernels. “We have reduced the gluten content in wheat lines by 85% in comparison to that of the wild type,” he says. “First, these lies could be already used as low gluten lines to prevent the development of some gluten intolerances like non-celiac wheat sensitivity. However, there some gliadins still in the genetic background, and therefore they cannot be used for other pathologies like celiac disease. For this, we have designed more sgRNAs to knockout the remaining gliadins. Hopefully, in 2–3 years we will have wheat varieties with no gliadins that could be suitable also for celiac people.” 

Barro is also encouraged, not only by the usefulness of the CRISPR/Cas9 technology on what his team did with the wheat seed kernel, but by the possibilities of using the technology to improve many more crops. “Bread wheat is one of the most important crops in the world, and editing of complex traits, involving many genes like gliadins, is challenging. The knockout of gliadins is a great example of engineering these complex traits with CRISPR/Cas. This technology will allow us to edit and correct genes with precision like never before. Moreover, the best of CRISPR for agriculture and food industry is yet to come, to make the crops defend themselves better, safer, and more productive even in extreme conditions.” 


Methane-fueled fermentation yields proteins for feed
Methane-fueled fermentation yields proteins for feedAs the world’s population continues to soar, finding new sources of food that can be produced in a safe and sustainable way is vital. Biotechnology company Calysta is using a natural fermentation method developed in Norway more than two decades ago to produce a non-GMO, fully traceable, and nutrient-dense protein that doesn’t contain any animal-derived byproducts. The fermentation process is fueled by methane gas emitted from landfills. So, instead of methane being released into the atmosphere causing further greenhouse gas damage, it can be used as energy to feed protein production. 

The company is currently using the process to produce FeedKind protein—a family of alternative feed ingredients for fish, livestock, and pet nutrition products—but one can imagine a not-so-distant future in which this process, or something similar, could produce human-grade protein.  

In the meantime, the FeedKind protein is poised to impact feed ingredients for aquaculture. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. (FAO) projects that by 2030, aquaculture, one of the fastest growing methods of producing food in the world, will be responsible for almost two-thirds of the fish consumed. With that comes an increase in the need for fish meal and fish oil—the most common feed used in aquaculture, which is made from wild-caught “forage” fish. With a third of the global fish harvest going to making fish meal and fish oil, forage fish populations are suffering. This has implications for the entire food web since larger fish depend on them for food. A sustainable, non-animal derived feed would benefit the oceanic ecosystem while enabling the aquaculture industry to continue to grow.  

How is FeedKind made? “Gases are mixed in a proprietary fermenter, where they are consumed by Calysta’s natural microorganisms, and form the basis of the FeedKind protein,” explains Allan LeBlanc, senior director and FeedKind product manager. “The protein is then separated from the aqueous media in which it is grown, with water and nutrients returned to the fermenter.” It is then dried and turned into pellet or powder form.  

“Methane is the source of carbon and energy for our fermentation process, in much the same way that sugar provides carbon and energy in wine fermentation,” continues LeBlanc. “The process can use any source of methane including biogas; however, it is difficult to find concentrated supplies of biogas in a single location to support a commercial-scale facility.” For now, the company will use natural gas from a pipeline at its $500-million Tennessee facility, which is expected to come online in 2019 and to produce up to 200,000 metric tons of FeedKind protein per year when at full capacity. 

Perhaps in the next decade or so we will see the installation of smaller-scale fermentation plants at landfills all over the world, using the methane to make protein that could very well end up in the next non-meat “hamburger” you bite into.


Xenoestrogen-rich foods may hamper breast cancer treatment
Soybeans Xenoestrogens in food and water may enhance the growth of estrogen-fueled cancers and reduce the effectiveness of a common breast cancer combination therapy, according to a study published in Cell Chemical Biology by researchers at The Scrips Research Institute. During the study, scientists treated breast cancer cells with a combination of palbociclib and letrozole, then examined the cells to see how their metabolite populations changed when exposed to two common dietary xenoestrogens: zearalenone and genistein. Zearalenone is produced by fungi that colonize maize, barley, wheat, and other grains, and has been linked to birth defects and abnormal sexual development in pigs and other livestock. Genistein is produced in soybeans and is often highly concentrated in phytoestrogen-rich food supplements. 

“We found that both model xenoestrogens largely reversed the metabolomic impact of the cancer drug combination,” says Benedikt Warth, lead author of the study. “Under the influence of either xenoestrogen, the breast cancer cells also resumed proliferating at a rate comparable to that seen in the absence of drug treatment. The results indicate that these dietary xenoestrogens may have the potential to affect cancer therapy outcomes—and genistein and zearalenone are just two of the many xenoestrogens potentially found in the human diet. Based on the mode of action, there’s a high likelihood that other xenoestrogens would counteract the therapy in a similar way.” 

One of the most important implications of the study is that food can influence therapy outcomes. Explains Warth, “There’s a vast space of bioactive chemicals in foods with both beneficial and adverse effects, and several recent studies suggest that interactions between these molecules and drugs occur frequently. More specifically, breast cancer patients taking palbociclib/letrozole should consider limiting their exposure to foods that contain xenoestrogens and maintain a healthy, well-balanced diet [while] avoiding food supplements rich in phytoestrogens.” 

Warth points out that even a low, background-level exposure to the xenoestrogens is enough to impact the effect of the therapy, a fact that bears further investigation. “We generally know very little about the interactions of bioactive compounds we are exposed to through our food or the environment with drug treatments, so in this field there are likely many clinically relevant discoveries yet to be made,” he says. 

In addressing the need for additional research, Warth comments, “Our work was done entirely with a cell model; this needs to be expanded to animals and, ultimately, to humans. To do this kind of research we need to develop analytical methods enabling the simultaneous and accurate quantification of multiple xenoestrogens in urine and serum to better understand exposure patterns. Furthermore, it will be important to explore how other xenoestrogens and xenoestrogen mixtures modulate the therapy.” 


Biomass-derived renewable plastics: green and lean
Water BottlesThe advent of plastics revolutionized many aspects of everyday life, but environmental concerns have driven scientists to search for more eco-friendly and cost-effective alternatives. Recently, researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison took a big step toward the formulation of a renewable plastic by developing an economical and high-yielding way of producing furandicarboxylic acid, or FDCA, one of 12 chemicals the U.S. Department of Energy calls critical to forging a “green” chemical industry. FDCA is a necessary precursor to PEF (polyethylene furanoate), a bio-based substitute for PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is widely used in the food industry for bottling and packaging.

To produce FDCA, the scientists first converted fructose to hydroxymethyl furfural (HMF) using a plant-based solvent system of one part GVL (gamma-Valerolactone) and one part water. HMF was then separated from the solvent and oxidized to FDCA. Although previous researchers attempted to convert fructose to HMF, they encountered problems with efficiently and economically separating HMF from the solvent and oxidizing it to FDCA. 

“We found a solution to this problem,” says Ali Hussain Motagamwala, co-author of the study, published in Science Advances. “We produce HMF in a solvent system in which we can oxidize HMF to FDCA, thereby eliminating the need of any separation. We also found that our solvent system has an added benefit, [in] that it solubilizes FDCA, which overcomes many challenges that are normally encountered during oxidation of HMF. 

“Our process is extremely simple as it uses established unit operations in industry; it eliminates toxic waste generally produced during oxidation of HMF, and it also eliminates the use of mineral acids and bases required in other processes,” she adds. “Since we have shown that the process is economically feasible, I hope that this work will be scaled-up to produce FDCA on a commercial scale.” 

As a major consumer of PET packaging films and bottles, the food industry offers a tremendous opportunity for the development of renewable plastics, says Motagamwala. “PEF has enhanced gas barrier properties for oxygen (nine times better than PET), carbon dioxide (11 times better than PET), and water vapor (two times better than PET), and has the same mechanical properties. This would increase the shelf life of products packaged in PEF. Also, the packaging weight can be reduced significantly to achieve similar performance as PET, which in turn would reduce the cost associated with transportation.”  

Although a preliminary analysis shows that the FDCA production process is cost-competitive with that used to produce terephthalic acid, future research focusing on the conversion of glucose to fructose could further reduce the cost. Explains Motagamwala, “We note in our paper that the major cost in our process is the feedstock, i.e., fructose. Thus, research for efficient and economic isomerization of glucose, which is the most abundant sugar, to fructose would lead to a better process.” 


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