American and Australian researchers have figured out how to unboil a hen egg, devising a method that unfolds tangled proteins. The process could prove to be extremely valuable in the biotech industry; costs could be dramatically cut for cancer treatments, food production and other research. So, is unboil a word now?

boiling egg

Image: Veronique Beranger | Getty Images

If you ever cooked an egg, you know that it’s made out of egg white and yolk. Egg whites are a low-calorie, fat-free food. They contain the bulk of the egg’s protein, while the yolks carry the cholesterol, the fat and saturated fat of the egg, but also important nutrients like essential fatty acids. When the whites are cooked, the proteins start to unfold under the thermal pressure, then fold again into a new tighter, more tangled structure – from clear and slimy, to white and gummy.

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, and Flinders University in Australia now report a novel process that pulls apart these newly tangled proteins, allowing them to refold to their original structure. The team boiled eggs for 20 minutes at 194 degrees Fahrenheit then added urea to untangle the knotted proteins into liquid proteins known as lysozymes. Yes, urea is one of the main ingredients found in urine. I don’t know about you, but this unboiled egg doesn’t sound safe to eat again. The liquid was then  processed in a  machine called a vortex fluidic device, developed by Colin Raston and his colleagues at Flinders University in Australia, which causes the tangled protein molecules to shear and refold normally.

“It’s not so much that we’re interested in processing the eggs; that’s just demonstrating how powerful this process is. The real problem is there are lots of cases of gummy proteins that you spend way too much time scraping off your test tubes, and you want some means of recovering that material,” said Gregory Weiss, a professor of chemistry and molecular biology and biochemistry at the University of California, Irvine.

Of course, there are other methods already available that untagle proteins, but these take days to process, while the “unboiled egg” method only takes a few minutes. Since it’s speeding the process up by a factor of thousands, the $160 billion biotech industry could save a great deal of money, which should translate in savings for consumers. According to Science Alert: “pharmaceutical companies commonly produce cancer antibodies for treatment using hamster ovary cells, which are expensive, but valuable, as they don’t often misfold proteins. The same goes for industrial cheese makers and farmers who need these kinds of proteins to drive the fermentation process. Using this new technique, scientists could instead use proteins extracted super-cheaply from yeast and E. coli bacteria and restore them to a useable form.

“I can’t predict how much money it will save, but I can this will save a ton of time, and time is money,” said Weiss.

The findings were published in the journal ChemBioChem


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