Scientists have found a way to unboil an egg – and the discovery could lead to cost reductions in cancer treatments, food production advancements and other areas of research. The process, developed by University of California and Australian chemists, can turn a hard boiled egg white back into liquid form. And while that might seem like just a cool trick, it’s really a fun way to show the revolutionary process the chemists have developed that can ‘untangle’ protein molecules.
“It’s not so much that we’re interested in processing the eggs; that’s just demonstrating how powerful this process is,” Professor Gregory Weiss, a biochemist at UC Irvine, said. “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.”
As soon as an egg is boiled, its proteins are tangled together and form a solid mass. But the chemists discovered that adding urea to the egg, the proteins can be untangled. They boil the eggs for 20 minutes at a temperature of 194 degrees F, then add urea to to recreate a clear protein found in the egg called a lysozyme. The urea then “chews” away at the protein, turning the solid into a liquid.
The protein pieces are still “balled up” at this point, so the pieces are placed in a vortex fluid device—a high-powered machine located at South Australia’s Flinders University. “Shear stress within thin, microfluidic films is applied to those tiny pieces, forcing them back into untangled, proper form,” notes Phys.org.
Pharmaceutical companies, for example, “currently create cancer antibodies in expensive hamster ovary cells that do not often misfold proteins. The ability to quickly and cheaply re-form common proteins from yeast or E. coli bacteria could potentially streamline protein manufacturing and make cancer treatments more affordable. Industrial cheese makers, farmers and others who use recombinant proteins could also achieve more bang for their buck.”
The University of California Irvine has filed for a patent for their new method and is working with commercial entities to bring this discovery into the mainstream.
Photos by UC Irvine and Flickr/Ritish Man Tamrakar