Professor Gregory Weiss and his research team have discovered a new way to untangle protein strands, resulting in a mechanism that can unboil an egg.
The team published their findings late last month in “ChemBioChem,” a chemical biology chemical journal. The research was sponsored by the US’s National Institute of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the Australian Research Council.
Weiss, a professor of chemistry, molecular biology and biochemistry, explained that the method provides a solution to a problem that occurs when producing proteins for research.
“Often times instead of coming out beautifully folded like a beautiful origami sculpture, instead it comes out like this sticky nest of aggregated tangled up proteins. It actually does look like a hardboiled egg,” Weiss said.
Weiss’s team worked in collaboration with professor Colin L. Raston of Flinders University in South Australia. The idea to unboil an egg first began when Weiss met Raston and learned of Raston’s invention, a vortex fluid device that rotates test tubes filled with solutions at high speed. Raston provided Weiss’s team with the fluid vortex device as well as one of his own graduate students, Callum F.G. Ormonde, to assist with the research.
The process begins with the solid whites of a hardboiled chicken egg, which are dissolved with urea. The urea-egg white solution, which appears cloudy, is then spun in the fluid vortex device. During the rotation, the shear stress generated by the solution being pushed up against the walls of the test tube pulls the proteins apart.
“This thing basically grabs onto the proteins, kind of like they’re elastic bands, and it stretches them and they snap back together,” Weiss explained.
Even in their dissolved state, the egg white proteins are tangled together. Once the proteins undergo enough stress in the vortex, they no longer snap back together. Instead, they remain in their relaxed state.
A final check of the proteins’ activity ensured that they are still functional, despite taking on a less tangled form.
After it’s unboiled, the egg white protein solution is a clear liquid. Because urea was added to it, it’s inedible.
The team’s results have implications for cancer research that may result better, and possibly less expensive and less painful, treatments for patients. Additionally, the research may also allow for earlier detection of cancer proteins, according to Weiss, whose research focuses on developing new techniques to diagnose cancer.
“I really, really want to do something where we can diagnose cancer earlier with patients,” said Weiss, whose research in cancer–which is caused by malfunction proteins–often puts him in contact with convoluted proteins.
“Often I’m confronting proteins that, instead of being nicely folded and nicely shaped, instead they come out like hard boiled eggs. They’re all messy and stuck together and tangled. So that’s what inspired me,” he said.
One goal of Weiss’s work is to allow earlier detection in cancer in order to treat patients more successfully. Professor Weiss also noted that this discovery can lead to cheaper costs in cancer treatments, and would make the treatments themselves less painful for the patients.
The food industry has also responded to this discovery, due to possible applications that could reduce production costs.
Despite having the majority of the spotlight shined on him for the discovery, Weiss emphasized the importance of student researchers in making the discovery possible.
The majority of his team is comprised of UCI students, including two undergraduate students five graduate researchers. Dr. Tom Z. Yuan, Callum F. G. Ormonde, Stephan T. Kudlacek, Sameeran Kunche, Joshua N. Smith, William A. Brown, Kaitlin M. Pugliese, Dr. Tivoli J. Olsen, Mariam Iftikhar, in addition to Raston, are the co-authors of the findings.
“UCI is very fortunate to attract really outstanding undergraduate and graduate students,” he said.