Newsletter: February 20, 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.

Genetic clue into peanut allergy
Peanut ButterResearchers have discovered a new gene associated with peanut allergy, giving them a greater understanding into the genetic component of food allergic reactions and even eventually helping them to diagnose children at risk. 

Peanut allergy is the result of both genes and the environment, says Denise Daley, associate professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia, and a corresponding author of the study. The findings in the recently published study give the researchers new insights into the gene’s role as a genetic risk factor for peanut allergy and in modifying gene expression in response to environmental exposures. The study was published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology

Previously published research shows that the gene, c11orf30/EMSY, is involved in other allergic conditions such as asthma, hay fever, and eczema, and the new study’s results show that the gene is associated with a food allergy, in this case peanut allergy, says Daley. The results also show that there is a common set of genes that predispose a person to an allergic phenotype, but which one (or more than one) is expressed (i.e., peanut allergy, asthma, eczema, etc.) may be dependent on exposure early in life, she adds. 

The next step in the research that will build on the knowledge learned about the gene c11orf30/EMSY, says Daley, will involve investigating if the process by which genes are turned on or turned off (methylation) is different in individuals who have peanut allergy versus those who do not. 


Understanding how saturated fat damages cells
Saturated FatA new study by researchers at Columbia University sheds light on the way in which saturated fatty acids damage cells. The researchers developed a microscopy technique that permitted direct tracking of fatty acids inside living cells. 

“The majority of bio-imaging techniques target macromolecules such as nucleic acid and proteins, but there are very few techniques for tracking small molecules such as fatty acids, especially in their native state,” says Yihui Shen, a Columbia graduate student and one of the study authors. She explains that this was the first time that researchers were able to visualize the distribution of fatty acids inside living cells in such detail.   

The researchers developed techniques that focus on imaging small molecules with high resolution. They found that the process of building cell membrane from saturated fatty acids produces patches of hardened membrane. Lipid molecules become rigid and separate from the rest of the cell’s membrane and accumulate in clusters in a state the researchers described as “solid like.” When more saturated fatty acids enter a cell, the clusters increase in size, causing the cell membrane to become more inelastic, gradually damaging the entire cell.   

Shen says the next step in the research is coming to a better understanding of exactly how the solid membrane damages the cell. The Columbia University researchers are also interested in determining whether and how this phenomenon contributes to disease pathology. The study results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Researchers test triboelectricity to power food packaging
Smart PackagingTwo researchers have collaborated to create a pilot device that can harvest triboelectricity to power smart packaging.  

Triboelectricity is the energy emitted when two materials come in frictional contact; it is a form of static electricity. Assistant professors Gregory Batt of Clemson University and James Gibert of Purdue University are exploring uses for triboelectricity because batteries—the predominant source of power in intelligent food packaging—eventually wear out. “There have been some advances in battery technology, but [they] have been outpaced by the technology involved in the sensors and the circuit boards used to store and transmit data,” Batt says. “[In addition,] they’re still large with respect to the devices that are recording. They’re heavy, they take up space, and this restricts how small some of these devices can actually get.”  

Advancing the technological abilities of intelligent food packaging requires advancing the methods used to power them. Triboelectricity is sustainable indefinitely as long as there is kinetic or mechanical input, so it can be used to power devices that function with intermittent power input and those that require continuous power. Triboelectric energy could therefore be used to power sensors monitoring the temperature of perishable items or scavenging devices.  

As newer and better iterations of Batt and Gibert’s energy harvesters are developed, they could facilitate a better way to monitor food as it moves through the food system. “I think we’re on the cusp of an evolution of how things are done over the next 10 to 20 years along with everything else. It has to do with the internet of things,” Gibert says. “I think we’re going to start being able to track things from the farm to the fridge, and that was the impetus of one of the broader impacts of [developing triboelectric devices].” 


Lab-engineered plant hormone could help regulate fruit growth
EggplantA synthetic version of the plant hormone auxin, developed by researchers at Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and described in a study published in Nature Chemical Biology, could open the door to a new way of ripening fruit.  

To plants, auxin is king, says study author Keiko Torii, HHMI investigator and plant biologist at the University of Washington. “It influences every aspect of plant growth, development, physiology, and behavior,” she says, helping roots to grow downward and fruits to ripen. Unraveling the mysteries behind the hormone was one of the goals of Torii and her colleagues, who developed a synthetic version with a bump added to its structure, along with an auxin receptor that is shape-complementary to the bumped inactive auxin analog. “The bumped auxin does not fit to the pocket of the natural auxin receptor TIR1, so it has no effect [on] natural plants,” she says. The engineered receptor fits the synthetic auxin but not the natural version, so expressing the engineered receptor (ccvTIR1) to specific cells, tissues, organs, or plants will enable researchers to precisely manipulate the auxin response.

For basic plant biology, the system will be a powerful tool to unravel the underlying mechanisms of specific auxin response, says Torii.  “The amino acid we have engineered for ccvTIR1 is conserved across land plants. Because of this, in theory, we can engineer and hijack auxin signaling in any land plants … including crop plant species.” 

The applications of Torii’s research are potentially wide-ranging. “Auxin has been widely used in horticulture and agriculture,” she explains. “Interestingly, synthetic auxins are used for two completely opposite purposes: plant growth regulator and herbicide. Application of auxin promotes fruit growth and ripening without pollination, and synthetic auxin is sprayed on tomato, eggplants (Solanaceae crops), and squash (Cucurbitaceae crops) to promote fruit growth. However, auxin is a physiological disruptant to all plants, so spraying can be tricky.

“If we introduce our engineered ccvTIR1 receptor only to be expressed in tomato flowers and fruits, for instance, we can precisely manipulate tomato fruit growth and ripening without disrupting the physiology of any other parts of crop plants (e.g., leaves, roots). Of course, careful studies should be performed to test the safety of cvxAuxin to the environment.” 

Since plants in nature are resistant to the synthetic hormone, it could also be used as a selective ‘herbicide’ to eliminate the spread of GMOs into the ecosystem. “Let’s say that desirable GMO crop plants expressing ccvTIR1 are growing in the crop field,” Torii explains. “To avoid an accidental, undesirable spread/cross pollination of the crop plants into the surrounding ecosystem, we could spray high a concentration of cvxIAA to selectively ‘kill’ crop plants (or those plants that inherited the engineered receptor). “High concentration of cvxIAA inhibits seedling/root growth (and thus potentially works as an herbicide) only to those plants carrying the engineered ccvTIR1 receptor, but not the natural plants.” 

Torii points out that 40 million pounds of synthetic auxin are applied as an herbicide in the United States. “We envision that our cvxIAA will be used in more localized settings, e.g., in the greenhouse for tomato and other fruit crops or in tissue culture plant propagation facilities, in a strategically targeted manner.” 


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