Unless you have had your head under a rock for the past week, you’ve probably seen the headlines in any major newspaper or science website: Scientists from Flinders University in Australia and University of California, Irvine lead by Professor Gregory Weiss have invented a way to unboil eggs.
The import of the discovery is lost beneath the headline, however. The ability to pull apart tangled proteins and refold them into more useful forms is not expected to create a revolution in culinary science. As suprising as it may sound, you are probably not going to be sending your Eggs Benedict back to the kitchen so the chef can unpoach your dish just a little more to your taste.
The method works about like you would expect, with a little chemical slight of hand mixed in: The eggs are basically stuffed in a blender, a “vortex fluid device,” together with a urea substance which eats away at the solid material. The combination of chemical de-coupling with shear stress from the vortex fluid device “uncoils” the egg matter and allows the proteins to refold into the gooey stuff from whence it came.
The team only worked with the egg whites, which are more protein-rich than the yolk. And, to the disappointment of television reporters, the process is a little more complex than it sounds — the egg whites were extracted from the eggs, diluted in phosphate buffered saline, and heat-treated at 90 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes. It’s not exactly the way that Mom used to make them.
And when the “unboiling” is complete, the team didn’t magically produce a complete raw egg again, but rather a slimy solution which was then chemically tested to confirm the presence of 85% of the lysozyme activity from the original egg white.
There have been other methods for accomplishing the same result, but they have been time-consuming and expensive. Dialysis has been in use for more than 100 years and represents a time-tested approach to allowing proteins to refold. The process created by the US/Australian team can accomplish the same thing in only minutes.
And that opens up a world of possibility in molecular chemistry.
Applications could include faster and more efficient methods of creating cancer antibodies, according to the team’s press release. And agricultural applications could be of benefit to farmers and cheese makers (or anyone else using recombinant proteins for processing).
But one of the most important applications might be in cancer testing. Professor Weiss envisions simple diagnostic tests for cancers, akin to basic home pregnancy test kits, which deposit proteins into patient’s urine. Prostate, bladder, and cervical cancers could be tested, for a start. In a Reddit interview, Weiss described the process:
“We train a harmless type of virus called a phage to grab onto the cancer biomarker. We then incorporate these trained phage into a conducting polymer. So, electricity flows through the polymer and the phage. As stuff binds to the surface of the phage, the impedance of the polymer changes. We readout this change in electricity flowing through the sensor.”
There’s no indication how long it might be before such tests have actually been developed and made commercially available, but UCI has already filed patents for the process.
By FQTQ Contributor Scott Wilson