Researchers at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and Australian chemists have discovered a way to unboil egg whites, according to findings published in the journal ChemBioChem. The development could reduce costs for cancer treatments, food production and other parts of the $160-billion global biotechnology industry.

"In our paper, we describe a device for pulling apart tangled proteins and allowing them to refold," says Gregory Weiss, UCI professor of chemistry and molecular biology and biochemistry. The process began with egg whites boiled for 20 minutes at 90 degrees Celsius and then returned a key protein in the egg to working order.

Weiss struggled to efficiently produce or recycle valuable molecular proteins that can be used and applied for other purposes. These frequently “misfold” into structurally incorrect shapes, which make them useless.

"It's not so much that we're interested in processing the eggs; that's just demonstrating how powerful this process is," Weiss says. "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."

"The new process takes minutes," Weiss adds.

To re-create a clear protein known as lysozyme once an egg has been boiled, he and his colleagues add a urea substance that chews away at the whites, liquefying the solid material. At the molecular level, protein bits are still balled up into unusable masses, according to the researchers. The scientists then use a vortex fluid device, designed by Professor Colin Raston’s laboratory at South Australia’s Flinders University. Shear stress within thin, microfluidic films is applied to those pieces, forcing them back into untangled, proper form, the findings say.

UCI has filed for a patent on the work, and its Office of Technology Alliances is working with interested commercial partners.

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