Unboiling an egg isn’t as impossible as it sounds anymore. Just ask a group of scientists from The University of Western Australia, Flinders University in Adelaide, and the University of California, Irvine.

Infographic by Viputheshwar Sitaraman at Draw Science

Infographic by Viputheshwar Sitaraman at Draw Science

“Yes, we have invented a way to unboil a hen egg,” said Professor Gregory Weiss from UCI. “In our paper, we describe a device for pulling apart tangled proteins and allowing them to refold. We start with egg whites boiled for 20 minutes at 90 degrees Celsius and return a key protein in the egg to working order.”

While their experiment could well place them in the running for an Ig Nobel Prize, it has important implications in improving the efficiency of protein-based pharmaceutical manufacturing and food production.

Using a vortex fluid device invented by Professor Colin Raston at Flinders University, the team unwound misfolded proteins in cooked egg white and then allowed them to refold into their normal shape.

“Usually in science you spend a ton of money on starting material. It is nice to walk into a store, put down $2 and walk away with a dozen,” Professor Weiss said.

The technique involves first adding urea to boiled eggs to liquefy them. “Urea takes protein chains that are tangled up and untangles them a little and moves them apart … It goes from being a solid to a liquid. But the proteins are still in the wrong shapes,” explained Professor Weiss.

To fix this, the team then spun the proteins in a vortex, where shear stress forces them to unwind then reform into the correct structure.

The group’s paper was published in January in ChemBioChem and notes that the “methods require only minutes, which is more than 100 times faster than conventional overnight dialysis.”

This process could allow scientists to produce untangled therapeutic proteins from bacteria, a more efficient alternative to the Chinese hamster ovary cells currently used for antibody production. This reduction in time and cost could make medical treatments more affordable, as well as streamlining recombinant protein production for industrial cheese makers and food manufacturers.

By Emma Armitage, Business Analyst, BioPacific Partners

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