Researchers at a Southern California university proved they could “unboil” an egg, a process that could bring dramatic efficiencies to lab-grown proteins that are common in cancer research.
The international team’s findings were published this week in ChemBioChem, a scientific journal.
University of California Irvine professor Greg Weiss, one of the paper’s authors, said he started with a problem familiar to researchers who grow proteins in test tubes for cancer research and treatments.
“The proteins come out as a gloppy mess,” he said. “Once they’re tangled up, they’re totally worthless.”
He eventually spoke with a University of Western Australia colleague, Colin Raston, who had invented a device to pull apart sheets of graphite. The vortex fluid device could possibly be used to straighten out tangled proteins, Weiss thought.
To better illustrate the process, they decided to transform something easily recognizable — a carton of eggs from the supermarket.
Anyone with a bit of experience in the kitchen can tell you that once an egg is boiled, there’s no going back, Weiss said.
But, he said, “we know as chemists the molecules haven’t changed. You’ve changed the shape of the proteins.”
The experiment focused on one protein within an egg white, lysozyme. First, the egg white was boiled for 20 minutes. Then, the rock-hard white was dissolved in urea, a biochemical compound, which pulled apart and coated the proteins.
The coated egg proteins then go into the vortex fluid device, where they’re spun and put under other stress as a thin film of fluid.
“They’re getting stretched apart, and they snap back,” Weiss said. “Sometimes they snap back into their natural shapes.”
The result is a clear solution that doesn’t look like much — but the proteins are back in their original form, Weiss said.
The team will now try to scale up the process. In a couple of years, it could cut down on the time that goes into creating proteins by a thousandfold, Weiss said. And that means significant savings and efficiency for pharmaceutical, agricultural, and other industries that currently spend $160 billion on these proteins each year, the authors wrote.
For Weiss, the findings are an exciting reminder of a basic chemistry concept: Energy can change forms, but it can’t be created or destroyed.
“This illustrates thermodynamics,” he said. “All we have to do is overcome the energy barrier.”