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Of eggs and enzymes
JP Morgan once famously said that you cannot unscramble eggs, but Australian chemistry professor Colin Raston indirectly challenged that adage. In 2015, Raston created the Vortex Fluidic Device (VFD), which uses variable speed rotation to unbind proteins, and followed a hunch to feed in a cooked hen egg. Raston found himself stunned when that egg emerged from the device uncooked.
Now, researchers from Flinders University in South Australia working with the University of California, Irvine, are applying the VFD technology to transform the way enzymes are used in research and development in the fuel and pharmaceutical industries.
“What we have done is established this new paradigm so you can come up with these complex molecules that would have taken a long time in the laboratory using the old paradigm but you can now do it in a fraction of the time,” said Raston.
“It’s not what we set out to do, to unboil an egg, but it’s the way of explaining the science involved and helping the wider world realize the momentousness of it,” he noted in 2015 after he was awarded an Ig Nobel prize (a kind of parody of the Nobel Prize that honors achievements “that first make people laugh, and then make them think") for the egg unboiling work by a panel of genuine Nobel Laureates.
The momentousness of the VFD is starting to be seen in the work of Flinders University. Experimentation has proven that the VFD allows for improved enzyme catalization. Use of enzymes in research has been traditionally hampered by long reaction times and lack of uniformity in outcomes. The VFD changes that dramatically.
“Enzymes make life possible by catalyzing diverse and challenging chemical transformations with exquisite precision and no nasty byproducts,” said lead researcher Joshua Britton.
Enzymes are inserted into the VFD along with water, which serves as a benign solvent, reducing the environmental impact of such research. The VFD works to spin bound proteins so quickly that they fly apart and refold into new molecules, allowing the execution of more tightly controlled chemical processes, saving researchers time and reducing chemical waste.
“If you think of protein as a long piece of spaghetti, it coils up in a special way [often] into structurally incorrect shapes which make them difficult to process. The VFD causes the proteins to unwind and refold normally,” explains Raston.
The added ability to fine-tune the frequencies of the pressure waves within the VFD ensures optimal responses from the enzymes in record time and, according the researchers, four of their tested enzymes displayed an average sevenfold acceleration, with another achieving an average 15-fold enhancement. “In solving a common problem in enzyme catalysis, a powerful, generalizable tool for enzyme acceleration has been uncovered,” say scientists from Flinders.
Another application utilized the VFD to precisely cut carbon nanotubes used in cancer drug delivery. The ability to cut the nanotubes with such precision offers uniformity in the products, and allows for improved drug delivery. “100 nanometers is the ideal length for getting into tumors so you can actually functionalize [the nanotubes] to target cancer cells,” says Raston.
This ability to slice nanotubes is a simpler and cheaper process than previous methods. Flinders University Ph.D. student Kasturi Vimalanathan, who played a key role in discovering new applications for the VFD device, said the machine’s ability to cut carbon nanotubes to a similar length also significantly increased the efficiency of solar cells.
“They shorten the carbon nanotubes to fit in all the chemicals so it can withstand higher temperatures,” she said. “It increases the efficiency and enhances the photoelectric conversion because they can provide a shorter transportation pathway for these electrons. We can see cheaper solar panels on the back of this development.”
Unboiling eggs has come a long way, perhaps now to revolutionize enzyme research in the development of novel cancer drug therapies and other areas. As Raston said in 2015 after receiving the Ig Nobel award, “The sheer scale of this is mind-boggling. The global pharmaceutical industry alone is worth $160 billion annually, and the processing of proteins is central to it. It’s impossible to place a price on the value of this device.”