Category Archives: food

Use AI to reduce worries about nanoparticles in food

A June 16, 2021 news item on ScienceDaily announces research into the impact that engineered metallic nanoparticles used in agricultural practices have on food,

While crop yield has achieved a substantial boost from nanotechnology in recent years, alarms over the health risks posed by nanoparticles within fresh produce and grains have also increased. In particular, nanoparticles entering the soil through irrigation, fertilizers and other sources have raised concerns about whether plants absorb these minute particles enough to cause toxicity.

In a new study published online in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, researchers at Texas A&M University have used machine learning [a form of artificial intelligence {AI}] to evaluate the salient properties of metallic nanoparticles that make them more susceptible for plant uptake. The researchers said their algorithm could indicate how much plants accumulate nanoparticles in their roots and shoots.

A June 16, 2021 Texas A&M University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research, which employed two different machine learning algorithms, in more detail,

Nanoparticles are a burgeoning trend in several fields, including medicine, consumer products and agriculture. Depending on the type of nanoparticle, some have favorable surface properties, charge and magnetism, among other features. These qualities make them ideal for a number of applications. For example, in agriculture, nanoparticles may be used as antimicrobials to protect plants from pathogens. Alternatively, they can be used to bind to fertilizers or insecticides and then programmed for slow release to increase plant absorption.

These agricultural practices and others, like irrigation, can cause nanoparticles to accumulate in the soil. However, with the different types of nanoparticles that could exist in the ground and a staggeringly large number of terrestrial plant species, including food crops, it is not clearly known if certain properties of nanoparticles make them more likely to be absorbed by some plant species than others.

“As you can imagine, if we have to test the presence of each nanoparticle for every plant species, it is a huge number of experiments, which is very time-consuming and expensive,” said Xingmao “Samuel” Ma, associate professor in the Zachry Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “To give you an idea, silver nanoparticles alone can have hundreds of different sizes, shapes and surface coatings, and so, experimentally testing each one, even for a single plant species, is impractical.”

Instead, for their study, the researchers chose two different machine learning algorithms, an artificial neural network and gene-expression programming. They first trained these algorithms on a database created from past research on different metallic nanoparticles and the specific plants in which they accumulated. In particular, their database contained the size, shape and other characteristics of different nanoparticles, along with information on how much of these particles were absorbed from soil or nutrient-enriched water into the plant body.

Once trained, their machine learning algorithms could correctly predict the likelihood of a given metallic nanoparticle to accumulate in a plant species. Also, their algorithms revealed that when plants are in a nutrient-enriched or hydroponic solution, the chemical makeup of the metallic nanoparticle determines the propensity of accumulation in the roots and shoots. But if plants are grown in soil, the contents of organic matter and the clay in soil are key to nanoparticle uptake.

Ma said that while the machine learning algorithms could make predictions for most food crops and terrestrial plants, they might not yet be ready for aquatic plants. He also noted that the next step in his research would be to investigate if the machine learning algorithms could predict nanoparticle uptake from leaves rather than through the roots.

“It is quite understandable that people are concerned about the presence of nanoparticles in their fruits, vegetables and grains,” said Ma. “But instead of not using nanotechnology altogether, we would like farmers to reap the many benefits provided by this technology but avoid the potential food safety concerns.”

This image accompanies the paper’s research abstract,

[downloaded frm https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/acs.est.1c01603]

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Prediction of Plant Uptake and Translocation of Engineered Metallic Nanoparticles by Machine Learning by Xiaoxuan Wang, Liwei Liu, Weilan Zhang, and Xingmao Ma. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2021, 55, 11, 7491–7500 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.1c01603 Publication Date:May 17, 2021 Copyright © 2021 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Canadian and Guadeloupean oysters: exposure to nanoplastics and arsenic

A May 27, 2021 news item on phys.org describes research into oysters and nanoplastics,

Oysters’ exposure to plastics is concerning, particularly because these materials can accumulate and release metals which are then absorbed by the mollusks. According to a recent study published in the journal Chemosphere, the combined presence of nanoplastics and arsenic affects the biological functions of oysters. This study was conducted by the Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) in Québec City and the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) at the University of Bordeaux in France

A May 27, 2021 INRS news release (French language version here and an English language version on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides fascinating details,

The international research team chose to study arsenic, since it is one of the most common metals absorbed by the plastic debris collected from the beaches of Guadeloupe. “Oysters easily accumulate metals from the environment into their tissues. We therefore wanted to test whether the combined exposure to nanoplastics and arsenic would increase the bioaccumulation of this contaminant,” reported Marc Lebordais, the Master’s student in charge of the research.

The scientists proved that the bioaccumulation of arsenic does not increase when nanoplastics are also present. However, it remained higher in the gills of the Canadian Crassostrea virginica oyster [emphasis mine] than in the Isognomon alatus oyster, found in Guadeloupe. These results are the first to highlight the diverging sensitivity of different species. [emphasis mine]

Gene deregulation

In addition to bioaccumulation, the team also observed an overexpression of genes responsible for cell death and the number of mitochondria–a cell’s energy centres–in C. virginica. In I. alatus, the expression of these same genes was less significant.

“Evaluating the expression of genes involved in important functions, such as cell death and detoxification, gives us information on the toxicity of nanoplastics and arsenic on a cellular level,” explained the young researcher, who is co-directed by Professors Valérie Langlois of INRS and Magalie Baudrimont of the University of Bordeaux.

The food chain

The next step, after characterizing the presence of nanoplastics and arsenic in oysters, would be to study how these contaminants are transferred through the food chain.

“Analytical tools are currently being developed to quantify the presence of nanoplastics in biological tissues,” said Marc Lebordais. “Understanding the amount of nanoplastics in farmed oysters currently boils down to a technical issue.” ?

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Molecular impacts of dietary exposure to nanoplastics combined with arsenic in Canadian oysters (Crassostrea virginica) and bioaccumulation comparison with Caribbean oysters (Isognomon alatus) by Marc Lebordais, Juan Manuel Gutierrez-Villagomez, Julien Gigault, Magalie Baudrimont, and Valérie Langlois. Chemosphere Volume 277, August 2021, 130331 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2021.130331 First published online 19 March 2021.

This paper is open access.

Chocolate at Canada’s synchrotron (Canadian Light Source; CLS)

An August 31, 2021 Canadian Light Source (CLS) news release by Erin Matthews describes research which could change how chocolate is made,

Scientists used synchrotron technology to show a key ingredient can create the ideal chocolate structure and could revolutionize the chocolate industry.

Structure is key when it comes creating the best quality of chocolate. An ideal internal structure will be smooth and continuous, not crumbly, and result in glossy, delicious, melt-in-your-mouth decadence. However, this sweet bliss is not easy to achieve.

Researchers from the University of Guelph had their first look at the detailed structure of dark chocolate using the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan. Their results were published today in Nature Communications.

“One of the major problems in chocolate making is tempering,” said Alejandro Marangoni, a professor at the University of Guelph and Canada Research Chair in Food, Health and Aging. “Very much like when you temper steel, you have to achieve a certain crystalline structure in the cocoa butter.”

Skilled chocolate makers [emphasis mine] use specialized tools and training to manipulate cocoa butter for gourmet chocolate. However, Marangoni wondered if adding a special ingredient to chocolate could drive the formation of the correct crystal structure without the complex cooling and mixing procedures typically used by chocolatiers during tempering.

“Imagine if you could add a component that directs the entire crystallization process to a high-quality finished product. You wouldn’t need fancy tempering protocols or industrial machines — you could easily achieve the desired crystalline form just by the addition of this component,” Marangoni said.

His team went to the CLS to see if their secret ingredient, a specific phospholipid, could drive the formation of an ideal chocolate structure. The facility’s bright light, which is millions of times brighter than the sun, allowed the team to get images of the interior structure of their dark chocolate in exquisite detail.

“We have some of the most beautiful micrographs of the finished chocolate that were only possible because we did this work at the CLS,” said Marangoni.

In a world first, the researchers were able to get detailed imaging of the internal structure of dark chocolate, thanks to the synchrotron’s state of the art BMIT beamline.

“Working with the CLS, I would call it a next level interaction,” Marangoni added. “It was extremely easy to set up a project and we had enormous support from beamline scientists.”

In collaboration with CLS Plant Imaging Lead Jarvis Stobbs, Marangoni and colleagues were able to confirm the positive effect their ingredient had on obtaining the ideal structure for chocolate.

“We screened many minor lipid components that would naturally be present in chocolate and identified one preferred group. We then added a very specific molecule, a saturated phospholipid, to the chocolate mass and obtained the desired effect. This phospholipid formed a specific liquid crystal structure that would ‘seed’ the formation of cocoa butter crystals,” said Marangoni.

Their discovery that this phospholipid ingredient will drive the formation of ideal cocoa butter crystals could have a big impact on the way that chocolate is made.

“It could potentially revolutionize the chocolate industry, because we would not need very complex tempering machines,” Marangoni said. “This could open up the possibility for smaller manufacturers to produce chocolate without having the big capital investment for tempering machinery.”

Synchrotron research allows scientists to identify important details that are not possible to find with other techniques. Marangoni said that any small improvement on current manufacturing methods can have a very large impact on the food industry and can potentially save money for companies.

He added that while chocolate research pales in comparison to global problems, he emphasizes the impact food can have on our everyday lives.

“We have more serious problems like climate change and alternative energies and maybe even vegan foods, which we’re working on as well, but chocolate gives us that psychological pleasure. It’s one of these foods that makes us feel happy.”

This video shows the researcher’s delight,

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Tempering of cocoa butter and chocolate using minor lipidic components by Jay Chen, Saeed M. Ghazani, Jarvis A. Stobbs & Alejandro G. Marangoni. Nature Communications volume 12, Article number: 5018 (2021) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-25206-1 Published 31 August 2021

This paper is open access.

According to a Sept. 2, 2021 article by Marc Fawcett-Atkinson for Canada’s National Observer, this work could lead to making chocolate production more sustainable

What happens to the skilled chocolate makers?

That’s one of my big questions. The other is what happens to us? In all these ‘improvements’ of which there are many being touted these days, what I notice is a lack of sensuality. In this particular case, no touch and no smell.

Five country survey of reactions to food genome editing

Weirdly and even though most of this paper’s authors are from the University of British Columbia (UBC; Canada), only one press release was issued and that was by the lead author’s (Gesa Busch) home institution, the University of Göttingen (Germany).

I’m glad Busch, the other authors, and the work are getting some attention (if not as much as I think they should).

From a July 9, 2021 University of Göttingen press release (also on EurekAlert but published on July 12, 2021),

A research team from the University of Göttingen and the University of British Columbia (Canada) has investigated how people in five different countries react to various usages of genome editing in agriculture. The researchers looked at which uses are accepted and how the risks and benefits of the new breeding technologies are rated by people. The results show only minor differences between the countries studied – Germany, Italy, Canada, Austria and the USA. In all countries, making changes to the genome is more likely to be deemed acceptable when used in crops rather than in livestock. The study was published in Agriculture and Human Values.

Relatively new breeding technologies, such as CRISPR [clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) gene editing, have enabled a range of new opportunities for plant and animal breeding. In the EU, the technology falls under genetic engineering legislation and is therefore subject to rigorous restrictions. However, the use of gene technologies remains controversial. Between June and November 2019, the research team collected views on this topic via online surveys from around 3,700 people from five countries. Five different applications of gene editing were evaluated: three relate to disease resistance in people, plants, or animals; and two relate to achieving either better quality of produce or a larger quantity of product from cattle.

“We were able to observe that the purpose of the gene modification plays a major role in how it is rated,” says first author Dr Gesa Busch from the University of Göttingen. “If the technology is used to make animals resistant to disease, approval is greater than if the technology is used to increase the output from animals.” Overall, however, the respondents reacted very differently to the uses of the new breeding methods. Four different groups can be identified: strong supporters, supporters, neutrals, and opponents of the technology. The opponents (24 per cent) identify high risks and calls for a ban of the technology, regardless of possible benefits. The strong supporters (21 per cent) see few risks and many advantages. The supporters (26 per cent) see many advantages but also risks. Whereas those who were neutral (29 per cent) show no strong opinion on the subject.

This study was made possible through funding from the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano and Genome BC.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Citizen views on genome editing: effects of species and purpose by Gesa Busch, Erin Ryan, Marina A. G. von Keyserlingk & Daniel M. Weary. Agriculture and Human Values (2021) Published: DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-021-10235-9

This paper is open access.

Methodology

I have one quick comment about the methodology. It can be difficult to get a sample that breaks down along demographic lines that is close to or identical to national statistics. That said, it was striking to me that every country was under represented in the ’60 years+ ‘ category. In Canada, it was by 10 percentage points (roughly). For other countries the point spread was significantly wider. In Italy, it was a 30 percentage point spread (roughly).

I found the data in the Supplementary Materials yesterday (July 13, 2021). When I looked this morning, that information was no longer there but you will find what appears to be the questionnaire. I wonder if this removal is temporary or permanent and, if permanent, I wonder why it was removed.

Participants for the Canadian portion of the survey were supplied by Dynata, a US-based market research company. Here’s the company’s Wikipedia entry and its website.

Information about how participants were recruited was also missing this morning (July 14, 2021).

Genome British Columbia (Genome BC)

I was a little surprised when I couldn’t find any information about the program or the project on the Genome BC website as the organization is listed as a funder.

There is a ‘Genomics and Society’ tab (seems promising, eh?) on the homepage where you can find the answer to this question: What is GE³LS Research?,

GE3LS research is interdisciplinary, conducted by researchers across many disciplines within social science and humanities, including economics, environment, law, business, communications, and public policy.

There’s also a GE3LS Research in BC page titled Project Search; I had no luck there either.

It all seems a bit mysterious to me and, just in case anything else disappears off the web, here’s a July 13, 2021 news item about the research on phys.org as backup to what I have here.

Edible nano-structured holograms could decorate food one day

Caption Nanostructures (yellowish-green images; scale bar, 5 μm) were patterned onto dried corn syrup films, producing edible, rainbow-colored holograms (scale bar, 2 mm). Credit Adapted from ACS Nano 2021, DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.0c02438

Where food safety is concerned, much of the research I’ve seen is focused on adding senors to the packaging rather than direct application to the foodstuff but this is different, from a February 17, 2021 news item on phys.org,

Holograms are everywhere, from driver’s licenses to credit cards to product packaging. And now, edible holograms could someday enhance foods. Researchers reporting in ACS [American Chemical Society] Nano have developed a laser-based method to print nanostructured holograms on dried corn syrup films. The edible holograms could also be used to ensure food safety, label a product or indicate sugar content, the researchers say.

A February 17, 2021American Chemical Society news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item,

Most holograms are imprinted with lasers onto metal surfaces, such as aluminum, but the materials aren’t edible. For foods, holograms made with nanoparticles have been proposed, but the tiny particles can generate reactive oxygen species, which might be harmful for people to eat. In a different approach, food scientists have molded edible holograms onto chocolate, but the process only works for certain types of the confection, and a different mold is needed for each hologram design. Bader AlQattan, Haider Butt and colleagues wanted to find a safe, fast and versatile way to pattern edible holograms onto a variety of foods.

To develop their method, the researchers made a solution of corn syrup, vanilla and water and dried it into a thin film. They coated the film with a fine layer of non-toxic black dye. Then, they used a technique called direct laser interference patterning to etch off most of the dye, leaving behind raised, nanoscale lines that formed a diffraction grating. When struck by light, the nanostructure diffracted the light into a rainbow pattern, with different colors appearing at different angles of viewing. The team could control the intensity and range of colors by varying the spacing between lines in the grating or the sugar content of the corn syrup film. Before edible holograms are ready to hit store shelves, however, the researchers want to adapt the method to a food-grade dye that could replace the synthetic black dye used in these pilot experiments.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Direct Printing of Nanostructured Holograms on Consumable Substrates by Bader AlQattan, Joelle Doocey, Murad Ali, Israr Ahmed, Ahmed E. Salih, Fahad Alam, Magdalena Bajgrowicz-Cieslak, Ali K. Yetisen, Mohamed Elsherif, and Haider Butt. ACS Nano 2021, 15, 2, 2340–2349 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.0c02438 Publication Date:February 1, 2021 Copyright © 2021 American Chemical Society

This paper appears to be open access.

It seems these scientists are also considering the aesthetic possibilities. Ffrom the paper, Note: Links have been removed,

The use of holograms in food could potentially improve sensory appeal [emphasis mine] and, through biosensing, could increase health and safety.(1,2) Holograms can even be used to store information as edible microtags.(3) They are also attractive to the eye as they produce rainbow patterns with light. Using edible holograms on foods, not only as decoration but also to sense harmful bacteria, could improve food quality/lifetime monitoring.(4,5) Food holograms which signify a qualitative information about the sugar contents could be of value in controlling the sugar consumption, that is challenging to be measured at the moment.(6)

As it is, I find food pretty attractive. So, I’m not sure why there’s a need to improve its sensory appeal. On the other hand, I can’t argue with increased food safety.

Should you be interested in more about holograms and their current applications, including chocolate decoration, you can check out Michael Berger’s February 17, 2021 Nanowerk Spotlight article.

Holographic chocolate surfaces. (Image: Morphotonix) [downloaded from https://www.nanowerk.com/spotlight/spotid=57310.php]

What do you think about decorating food with holograms? If you feel inclined, do let me know in the comments.

Living plants detect arsenic by way of embedded nanosensors

There’s a lot of arsenic in the world and it’s often a factor in making water undrinkable. When that water is used in farming It also pollutes soil and enters food-producing plants. A December 11, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announces research into arsenic detectors in plants,

Researchers have developed a living plant-based sensor that can in real-time detect and monitor levels of arsenic, a highly toxic heavy metal, in the soil. Arsenic pollution is a major threat to humans and ecosystems in many Asia Pacific countries.

Caption: Non-destructive plant nanobionic sensor embedded within leaves to report arsenic levels within plants to portable electronics, enabling real-time monitoring of arsenic uptake in living plants. Credit: Dr. Tedrick Thomas Salim Lew

I was not able to find the source for the news item but I did locate something close. From a December 13, 2020 Singapore-Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), also on EurekAlert,

Scientists from the Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP) research group at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore, have engineered a novel type of plant nanobionic optical sensor that can detect and monitor, in real time, levels of the highly toxic heavy metal arsenic in the underground environment. This development provides significant advantages over conventional methods used to measure arsenic in the environment and will be important for both environmental monitoring and agricultural applications to safeguard food safety, as arsenic is a contaminant in many common agricultural products such as rice, vegetables, and tea leaves.

Arsenic and its compounds are a serious threat to humans and ecosystems. Long-term exposure to arsenic in humans can cause a wide range of detrimental health effects, including cardiovascular disease such as heart attack, diabetes, birth defects, severe skin lesions, and numerous cancers including those of the skin, bladder, and lung. Elevated levels of soil arsenic as a result of anthropogenic activities such as mining and smelting are also harmful to plants, inhibiting growth and resulting in substantial crop losses.

Food crops can absorb arsenic from the soil, leading to contamination of food and produce consumed by humans. Arsenic in underground environments can also contaminate groundwater and other underground water sources, the long-term consumption of which can cause severe health issues. As such, developing accurate, effective, and easy-to-deploy arsenic sensors is important to protect both the agriculture industry and wider environmental safety.

The novel optical nanosensors exhibit changes in their fluorescence intensity upon detecting arsenic. Embedded in plant tissues, with no detrimental effects on the plant, these sensors provide a nondestructive way to monitor the internal dynamics of arsenic taken up by plants from the soil. This integration of optical nanosensors within living plants enables the conversion of plants into self-powered detectors of arsenic from their natural environment, marking a significant upgrade from the time- and equipment-intensive arsenic sampling methods of current conventional methods.

“Our plant-based nanosensor is notable not only for being the first of its kind, but also for the significant advantages it confers over conventional methods of measuring arsenic levels in the below-ground environment, requiring less time, equipment, and manpower,” says Lew. “We envision that this innovation will eventually see wide use in the agriculture industry and beyond. I am grateful to SMART DiSTAP and the Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL), both of which were instrumental in idea generation and scientific discussion as well as research funding for this work.”

Besides detecting arsenic in rice and spinach, the team also used a species of fern, Pteris cretica, which can hyperaccumulate arsenic. This fern species can absorb and tolerate high levels of arsenic with no detrimental effect — engineering an ultrasensitive plant-based arsenic detector, capable of detecting very low concentrations of arsenic, as low as 0.2 parts per billion. In contrast, the regulatory limit for arsenic detectors is 10 parts per billion. Notably, the novel nanosensors can also be integrated into other species of plants. The researchers say this is the first successful demonstration of living plant-based sensors for arsenic and represents a groundbreaking advancement that could prove highly useful in both agricultural research (e.g., to monitor arsenic taken up by edible crops for food safety) and general environmental monitoring.

Previously, conventional methods of measuring arsenic levels included regular field sampling, plant tissue digestion, extraction, and analysis using mass spectrometry. These methods are time-consuming, require extensive sample treatment, and often involve the use of bulky and expensive instrumentation. The new approach couples nanoparticle sensors with plants’ natural ability to efficiently extract analytes via the roots and transport them. This allows for the detection of arsenic uptake in living plants in real time, with portable, inexpensive electronics such as a portable Raspberry Pi platform equipped with a charge-coupled device camera akin to a smartphone camera.

Co-author, DiSTAP co-lead principal investigator, and MIT Professor Michael Strano adds, “This is a hugely exciting development, as, for the first time, we have developed a nanobionic sensor that can detect arsenic — a serious environmental contaminant and potential public health threat. With its myriad advantages over older methods of arsenic detection, this novel sensor could be a game-changer, as it is not only more time-efficient, but also more accurate and easier to deploy than older methods. It will also help plant scientists in organizations such as TLL to further produce crops that resist uptake of toxic elements. Inspired by TLL’s recent efforts to create rice crops which take up less arsenic, this work is a parallel effort to further support SMART DiSTAP’s efforts in food security research, constantly innovating and developing new technological capabilities to improve Singapore’s food quality and safety.”

The research is carried out by SMART and supported by the National Research Foundation (NRF) Singapore under its Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise (CREATE) program.

Led by MIT’s Strano and Singapore co-lead principal investigator Professor Chua Nam Hai, DiSTAP is one of the five Interdisciplinary Research Groups (IRGs) in SMART. The DiSTAP program addresses deep problems in food production in Singapore and the world by developing a suite of impactful and novel analytical genetic and biosynthetic technologies. The goal is to fundamentally change how plant biosynthetic pathways are discovered, monitored, engineered, and ultimately translated to meet the global demand for food and nutrients. Scientists from MIT, TTL, Nanyang Technological University, and National University of Singapore are collaboratively developing new tools for the continuous measurement of important plant metabolites and hormones for novel discovery, deeper understanding and control of plant biosynthetic pathways in ways not yet possible, especially in the context of green leafy vegetables; leveraging these new techniques to engineer plants with highly desirable properties for global food security, including high yield density production, drought and pathogen resistance and biosynthesis of high-value commercial products; developing tools for producing hydrophobic food components in industry-relevant microbes; developing novel microbial and enzymatic technologies to produce volatile organic compounds that can protect and/or promote growth of leafy vegetables; and applying these technologies to improve urban farming.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Plant Nanobionic Sensors for Arsenic Detection by Tedrick Thomas Salim Lew, Minkyung Park, Jianqiao Cui, Michael S. Strano. Advanced Materials DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.202005683 First published: 26 November 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Food sensor made from of silk microneedles looks like velco

These sensors really do look like velcro,

The Velcro-like food sensor, made from an array of silk microneedles, can pierce through plastic packaging to sample food for signs of spoilage and bacterial contamination. Image: Felice Frankel

A September 9, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announces some research from the Massachusetts Institute (MIT),

MIT engineers have designed a Velcro-like food sensor, made from an array of silk microneedles, that pierces through plastic packaging to sample food for signs of spoilage and bacterial contamination.

The sensor’s microneedles are molded from a solution of edible proteins found in silk cocoons, and are designed to draw fluid into the back of the sensor, which is printed with two types of specialized ink. One of these “bioinks” changes color when in contact with fluid of a certain pH range, indicating that the food has spoiled; the other turns color when it senses contaminating bacteria such as pathogenic E. coli.

A Sept. 9, 2020 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the research,

The researchers attached the sensor to a fillet of raw fish that they had injected with a solution contaminated with E. coli. After less than a day, they found that the part of the sensor that was printed with bacteria-sensing bioink turned from blue to red — a clear sign that the fish was contaminated. After a few more hours, the pH-sensitive bioink also changed color, signaling that the fish had also spoiled.

The results, published today in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, are a first step toward developing a new colorimetric sensor that can detect signs of food spoilage and contamination.

Such smart food sensors might help head off outbreaks such as the recent salmonella contamination in onions and peaches. They could also prevent consumers from throwing out food that may be past a printed expiration date, but is in fact still consumable.

“There is a lot of food that’s wasted due to lack of proper labeling, and we’re throwing food away without even knowing if it’s spoiled or not,” says Benedetto Marelli, the Paul M. Cook Career Development Assistant Professor in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “People also waste a lot of food after outbreaks, because they’re not sure if the food is actually contaminated or not. A technology like this would give confidence to the end user to not waste food.”

Marelli’s co-authors on the paper are Doyoon Kim, Yunteng Cao, Dhanushkodi Mariappan, Michael S. Bono Jr., and A. John Hart.

Silk and printing

The new food sensor is the product of a collaboration between Marelli, whose lab harnesses the properties of silk to develop new technologies, and Hart, whose group develops new manufacturing processes.

Hart recently developed a high-resolution floxography technique, realizing microscopic patterns that can enable low-cost printed electronics and sensors. Meanwhile, Marelli had developed a silk-based microneedle stamp that penetrates and delivers nutrients to plants. In conversation, the researchers wondered whether their technologies could be paired to produce a printed food sensor that monitors food safety.

“Assessing the health of food by just measuring its surface is often not good enough. At some point, Benedetto mentioned his group’s microneedle work with plants, and we realized that we could combine our expertise to make a more effective sensor,” Hart recalls.

The team looked to create a sensor that could pierce through the surface of many types of food. The design they came up with consisted of an array of microneedles made from silk.

“Silk is completely edible, nontoxic, and can be used as a food ingredient, and it’s mechanically robust enough to penetrate through a large spectrum of tissue types, like meat, peaches, and lettuce,” Marelli says.

A deeper detection

To make the new sensor, Kim first made a solution of silk fibroin, a protein extracted from moth cocoons, and poured the solution into a silicone microneedle mold. After drying, he peeled away the resulting array of microneedles, each measuring about 1.6 millimeters long and 600 microns wide — about one-third the diameter of a spaghetti strand.

The team then developed solutions for two kinds of bioink — color-changing printable polymers that can be mixed with other sensing ingredients. In this case, the researchers mixed into one bioink an antibody that is sensitive to a molecule in E. coli. When the antibody comes in contact with that molecule, it changes shape and physically pushes on the surrounding polymer, which in turn changes the way the bioink absorbs light. In this way, the bioink can change color when it senses contaminating bacteria.

The researchers made a bioink containing antibodies sensitive to E. coli, and a second bioink sensitive to pH levels that are associated with spoilage. They printed the bacteria-sensing bioink on the surface of the microneedle array, in the pattern of the letter “E,” next to which they printed the pH-sensitive bioink, as a “C.” Both letters initially appeared blue in color.

Kim then embedded pores within each microneedle to increase the array’s ability to draw up fluid via capillary action. To test the new sensor, he bought several fillets of raw fish from a local grocery store and injected each fillet with a fluid containing either E. coli, Salmonella, or the fluid without any contaminants. He stuck a sensor into each fillet. Then, he waited.

After about 16 hours, the team observed that the “E” turned from blue to red, only in the fillet contaminated with E. coli, indicating that the sensor accurately detected the bacterial antigens. After several more hours, both the “C” and “E” in all samples turned red, indicating that every fillet had spoiled.

The researchers also found their new sensor indicates contamination and spoilage faster than existing sensors that only detect pathogens on the surface of foods.

“There are many cavities and holes in food where pathogens are embedded, and surface sensors cannot detect these,” Kim says. “So we have to plug in a bit deeper to improve the reliability of the detection. Using this piercing technique, we also don’t have to open a package to inspect food quality.”

The team is looking for ways to speed up the microneedles’ absorption of fluid, as well as the bioinks’ sensing of contaminants. Once the design is optimized, they envision the sensor could be used at various stages along the supply chain, from operators in processing plants, who can use the sensors to monitor products before they are shipped out, to consumers who may choose to apply the sensors on certain foods to make sure they are safe to eat.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A Microneedle Technology for Sampling and Sensing Bacteria in the Food Supply Chain by Doyoon Kim, Yunteng Cao, Dhanushkodi Mariappan, Michael S. Bono Jr., A. John Hart, Benedetto Marelli. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adfm.202005370 First published: 09 September 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Congratulations to winners of 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry: Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier & Dr. Jennifer A. Doudna (CRISPR-cas9)

It’s possible there’s a more dramatic development in the field of contemporary gene-editing but it’s indisputable that CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) -cas9 (CRISPR-associated 9 [protein]) ranks very highly indeed.

The technique, first discovered (or developed) in 2012, has brought recognition in the form of the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry to CRISPR’s two discoverers, Emanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna.

An October 7, 2020 news item on phys.org announces the news,

The Nobel Prize in chemistry went to two researchers Wednesday [October 7, 2020] for a gene-editing tool that has revolutionized science by providing a way to alter DNA, the code of life—technology already being used to try to cure a host of diseases and raise better crops and livestock.

Emmanuelle Charpentier of France and Jennifer A. Doudna of the United States won for developing CRISPR-cas9, a very simple technique for cutting a gene at a specific spot, allowing scientists to operate on flaws that are the root cause of many diseases.

“There is enormous power in this genetic tool,” said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

More than 100 clinical trials are underway to study using CRISPR to treat diseases, and “many are very promising,” according to Victor Dzau, president of the [US] National Academy of Medicine.

“My greatest hope is that it’s used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology and to benefit humankind,” said Doudna, who is affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley, and is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports The Associated Press’ Health and Science Department.

The prize-winning work has opened the door to some thorny ethical issues: When editing is done after birth, the alterations are confined to that person. Scientists fear CRISPR will be misused to make “designer babies” by altering eggs, embryos or sperm—changes that can be passed on to future generations.

Unusually for phys.org, this October 7, 2020 news item is not a simple press/news release reproduced in its entirety but a good overview of the researchers’ accomplishments and a discussion of some of the issues associated with CRISPR along with the press release at the end.

I have covered some CRISPR issues here including intellectual property (see my March 15, 2017 posting titled, “CRISPR patent decision: Harvard’s and MIT’s Broad Institute victorious—for now‘) and designer babies (as exemplified by the situation with Dr. He Jiankui; see my July 28, 2020 post titled, “July 2020 update on Dr. He Jiankui (the CRISPR twins) situation” for more details about it).

An October 7, 2020 article by Michael Grothaus for Fast Company provides a business perspective (Note: A link has been removed),

Needless to say, research by the two scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry today has the potential to change the course of humanity. And with that potential comes lots of VC money and companies vying for patents on techniques and therapies derived from Charpentier’s and Doudna’s research.

One such company is Doudna’s Editas Medicine [according to my search, the only company associated with Doudna is Mammoth Biosciences, which she co-founded], while others include Caribou Biosciences, Intellia Therapeutics, and Casebia Therapeutics. Given the world-changing applications—and the amount of revenue such CRISPR therapies could bring in—it’s no wonder that such rivalry is often heated (and in some cases has led to lawsuits over the technology and its patents).

As Doudna explained in her book, A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution, cowritten by Samuel H. Sternberg …, “… —but we could also have woolly mammoths, winged lizards, and unicorns.” And as for that last part, she made clear, “No, I am not kidding.”

Everybody makes mistakes and the reference to Editas Medicine is the only error I spotted. You can find out more about Mammoth Biosciences here and while Dr. Doudna’s comment, “My greatest hope is that it’s used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology and to benefit humankind,” is laudable it would seem she wishes to profit from the discovery. Mammoth Biosciences is a for-profit company as can be seen at the end of the Mammoth Biosciences’ October 7, 2020 congratulatory news release,

About Mammoth Biosciences

Mammoth Biosciences is harnessing the diversity of nature to power the next-generation of CRISPR products. Through the discovery and development of novel CRISPR systems, the company is enabling the full potential of its platform to read and write the code of life. By leveraging its internal research and development and exclusive licensing to patents related to Cas12, Cas13, Cas14 and Casɸ, Mammoth Biosciences can provide enhanced diagnostics and genome editing for life science research, healthcare, agriculture, biodefense and more. Based in San Francisco, Mammoth Biosciences is co-founded by CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna and Trevor Martin, Janice Chen, and Lucas Harrington. The firm is backed by top institutional investors [emphasis mine] including Decheng, Mayfield, NFX, and 8VC, and leading individual investors including Brook Byers, Tim Cook, and Jeff Huber.

An October 7, 2029 Nobel Prize press release, which unleashed all this interest in Doudna and Charpentier, notes this,

Prize amount: 10 million Swedish kronor, to be shared equally between the Laureates.

In Canadian money that amount is $1,492,115.03 (as of Oct. 9, 2020 12:40 PDT when I checked a currency converter).

Ordinarily there’d be a mildly caustic comment from me about business opportunities and medical research but this is a time for congratulations to both Dr. Emanuelle Charpentier and Dr. Jennifer Doudna.

Effective treatment for citrus-destroying disease?

Citrus greening is a worldwide problem. A particularly virulent disease that destroys citrus fruit, it’s a problem that is worsening. Before getting to the research from the University of California at Riverside (UCR), here’s more about the disease and how it’s developing from the UCR Huanglongbing, (HLB, Citrus Greening webpage,

The Situation: Citrus huanglongbing (HLB), previously called citrus greening disease, is one of the most destructive diseases of citrus worldwide.  Originally thought to be caused by a virus, it is now known to be caused by unculturable phloem-limited bacteria.  There are three forms of greening that have been described.  The African form produces symptoms only under cool conditions and is transmitted by the African citrus psyllid Trioza erytreae, while the Asian form prefers warmer conditions and is transmitted by the Asian citrus psyllid Diaphorina citri.  Recently a third American form transmitted by the Asian citrus psyllid was discovered in Brazil.  This American form of the disease apparently originated in China.  In North America, the psyllid vector, Diaphorina citri, of HLB is found in Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas and Hawaii, and recently arrived in Southern California from Mexico. HLB is known to occur in Florida Lousiana, South Carolina, Georgia, Cuba, Belize and the Eastern Yucatan of Mexico.  A federal quarantine restricts all movement of citrus and other plants in the family Rutaceae from Asian Citrus Psyllid or HLB-infested areas into California in order to prevent introduction of the disease.

 Damage:  The HLB bacteria can infect most citrus cultivars, species and hybrids and even some citrus relatives.  Leaves of newly infected trees develop a blotchy mottle appearance.  On chronically infected trees, the leaves are small and exhibit asymmetrical blotchy mottling (in contrast to Zinc deficiency that causes symmetrical blotching).  Fruit from HLB-infected trees are small, lopsided, poorly colored, and contain aborted seeds. The juice from affected fruit is low in soluble solids, high in acids and abnormally bitter.  The fruit retains its green color at the navel end when mature, which is the reason for the common name “citrus greening disease.”  This fruit is of no value because of poor size and quality.  There is no cure for the disease and rapid tree removal is critical for prevention of spread.

Economic Impact: HLB is one of the most devastating diseases of citrus and since its discovery in Florida in 2005, citrus acreage in that state has declined significantly.  If the disease were to establish in California, the nursery industry would be required to move all of their production under screenhouses, pesticide treatments for the vector would be instituted resulting in greatly increased pesticide costs (3-6 treatments per year) and indirect costs due to pesticide-induced disruption of integrated pest management programs for other citrus pests.  A costly eradication program would need to be instituted to remove infected trees in order to protect the citrus industry.

Distribution of HLB: In April 2012, after about a week of testing, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) removed a pumelo tree with a lemon graft from Hacienda Heights in Los Angeles County after the tree and an Asian citrus psyllid found on the tree both tested positive for Huanglongbing. In 2005, HLB was also found in Florida and it is now known to occur in Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Cuba, Belze and Eastern Mexico.  Worldwide, HLB is also present in China, eastern and southern Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Mauritius, Reunion, the Saudi Arabian peninsula, and southeast Asia.

Research:  Research is focusing on characterization of the bacteria, development of detection methods, and control of the disease and the psyllid.  To date, control of the disease is based on planting HLB-free citrus germplasm, eradication of infected citrus plants, and control of the vector with systemic insecticides.  Countries with HLB learn to manage the disease so that they can still produce citrus.  In California, the best strategy is to keep this disease out. This goal is supported by both federal and state quarantine regulations and the University of California’s Citrus Clonal Protection Program, which provides a mechanism for the safe introduction of citrus germplasm into California.

A July 7, 2020 news item on phys.org announces what researchers hope can be used commercially as a new treatment for citrus greening disease from researchers University of California at Riverside (UCR), Note: Links have been removed,

UC Riverside scientists have found the first substance capable of controlling Citrus Greening Disease, which has devastated citrus farms in Florida and also threatens California.

The new treatment effectively kills the bacterium causing the disease with a naturally occurring molecule found in wild citrus relatives. This molecule, an antimicrobial peptide, offers numerous advantages over the antibiotics currently used to treat the disease.

UCR geneticist Hailing Jin, who discovered the cure after a five-year search, explained that unlike antibiotic sprays, the peptide is stable even when used outdoors in high heat, easy to manufacture, and safe for humans.

A July 7, 2020 UCR news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jules Bernstein, which originated the news item, provides technical detail and information about plans to commercialize the product,

“This peptide is found in the fruit of Australian finger limes, which can naturally tolerate Citrus Greening bacteria and has been consumed for hundreds of years,” Jin said. “It is much safer to use this natural plant product on agricultural crops than other synthetic chemicals.”

Currently, some growers in Florida are spraying antibiotics and pesticides in an attempt to save trees from the CLas bacterium that causes citrus greening, also known as Huanglongbing or HLB.

“Most antibiotics are temperature sensitive, so their effects are largely reduced when applied in the hot weather,” Jin said. “By contrast, this peptide is stable even when used in 130-degree heat.”

Jin found the peptide by examining plants such as the Australian finger lime known to possess natural tolerance for the bacteria that causes Citrus Greening Disease, and she isolated the genes that contribute to this innate immunity. One of these genes produces the peptide, which she then tested over the course of two years. Improvement was soon visible.

“You can see the bacteria drastically reduced, and the leaves appear healthy again only a few months after treatment,” Jin said.

Because the peptide only needs to be reapplied a few times per year, it is highly cost effective for growers. This peptide can also be developed into a vaccine to protect young healthy plants from infection, as it is able to induce the plant’s innate immunity to the bacteria.

Jin’s peptide can be applied by injection or foliage spray, and it moves systemically through plants and remains stable, which makes the effect of the treatment stronger.

The treatment will be further enhanced with proprietary injection technology made by Invaio Sciences. UC Riverside has entered into an exclusive, worldwide license agreement with Invaio, ensuring this new treatment goes exactly where it’s needed in plants.

“Invaio is enthusiastic to partner with UC Riverside and advance this innovative technology for combating the disease known as Citrus Greening or Huanglongbing,” said Invaio Chief Science Officer Gerardo Ramos. “The prospect of addressing this previously incurable and devastating crop disease, helping agricultural communities and improving the environmental impact of production is exciting and rewarding,” he said. “This is crop protection in harmony with nature.”

The need for an HLB cure is a global problem, but hits especially close to home as California produces 80 percent of all the fresh citrus in the United States, said Brian Suh, director of technology commercialization in UCR’s Office of Technology Partnerships, which helps bring university technology to market for the benefit of society through licenses, partnerships, and startup companies.

“This license to Invaio opens up the opportunity for a product to get to market faster,” Suh said. “Cutting edge research from UCR, like the peptide identified by Dr. Jin, has a tremendous amount of commercial potential and can transform the trajectory of real-world problems with these innovative solutions.”

You can find out more about Invaio Sciences here.

Citrus greening has been featured here before in an April 7, 2015 posting titled, Citrus canker, Florida, and Zinkicide. There doesn’t seem to have been much progress made with this Florida solution for citrus greening. This 2018 document on nano.gov was the most recent I could find, ZinkicideTM- a systemic nano-ZnO based bactericide/fungicide for crop protection by Swadeshmukul Santra.

3D-printed graphene sensors for highly sensitive food freshness detection

I love the opening line (lede). From a June 29, 2020 news item on Nanowerk,

Researchers dipped their new, printed sensors into tuna broth and watched the readings.

It turned out the sensors – printed with high-resolution aerosol jet printers on a flexible polymer film and tuned to test for histamine, an allergen and indicator of spoiled fish and meat – can detect histamine down to 3.41 parts per million.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has set histamine guidelines of 50 parts per million in fish, making the sensors more than sensitive enough to track food freshness and safety.

I find using 3D-printing techniques to produce graphene, a 2-d material, intriguing. Apparently, the technique is cheaper and offers an advantage as it allows for greater precision than other techniques (inkjet printing, chemical vapour depostion [CVD], etc.)

Here’s more detail from a June 25, 2020 Iowa State University news release (also on EurekAlert but published June 29, 2020), which originated the news item,

Making the sensor technology possible is graphene, a supermaterial that’s a carbon honeycomb just an atom thick and known for its strength, electrical conductivity, flexibility and biocompatibility. Making graphene practical on a disposable food-safety sensor is a low-cost, aerosol-jet-printing technology that’s precise enough to create the high-resolution electrodes necessary for electrochemical sensors to detect small molecules such as histamine.

“This fine resolution is important,” said Jonathan Claussen, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Iowa State University and one of the leaders of the research project. “The closer we can print these electrode fingers, in general, the higher the sensitivity of these biosensors.”

Claussen and the other project leaders – Carmen Gomes, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Iowa State; and Mark Hersam, the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois – have recently reported their sensor discovery in a paper published online by the journal 2D Materials. (…)

The paper describes how graphene electrodes were aerosol jet printed on a flexible polymer and then converted to histamine sensors by chemically binding histamine antibodies to the graphene. The antibodies specifically bind histamine molecules.

The histamine blocks electron transfer and increases electrical resistance, Gomes said. That change in resistance can be measured and recorded by the sensor.

“This histamine sensor is not only for fish,” Gomes said. “Bacteria in food produce histamine. So it can be a good indicator of the shelf life of food.”

The researchers believe the concept will work to detect other kinds of molecules, too.

“Beyond the histamine case study presented here, the (aerosol jet printing) and functionalization process can likely be generalized to a diverse range of sensing applications including environmental toxin detection, foodborne pathogen detection, wearable health monitoring, and health diagnostics,” they wrote in their research paper.

For example, by switching the antibodies bonded to the printed sensors, they could detect salmonella bacteria, or cancers or animal diseases such as avian influenza, the researchers wrote.

Claussen, Hersam and other collaborators (…) have demonstrated broader application of the technology by modifying the aerosol-jet-printed sensors to detect cytokines, or markers of inflammation. The sensors, as reported in a recent paper published by ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, can monitor immune system function in cattle and detect deadly and contagious paratuberculosis at early stages.

Claussen, who has been working with printed graphene for years, said the sensors have another characteristic that makes them very useful: They don’t cost a lot of money and can be scaled up for mass production.

“Any food sensor has to be really cheap,” Gomes said. “You have to test a lot of food samples and you can’t add a lot of cost.”

Claussen and Gomes know something about the food industry and how it tests for food safety. Claussen is chief scientific officer and Gomes is chief research officer for NanoSpy Inc., a startup company based in the Iowa State University Research Park that sells biosensors to food processing companies.

They said the company is in the process of licensing this new histamine and cytokine sensor technology.

It, after all, is what they’re looking for in a commercial sensor. “This,” Claussen said, “is a cheap, scalable, biosensor platform.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the two papers mentioned in the news release,

Aerosol-jet-printed graphene electrochemical histamine sensors for food safety monitoring by Kshama Parate, Cícero C Pola, Sonal V Rangnekar, Deyny L Mendivelso-Perez, Emily A Smith, Mark C Hersam, Carmen L Gomes and Jonathan C Claussen. 2D Materials, Volume 7, Number 3 DOI https://doi.org/10.1088/2053-1583/ab8919 Published 10 June 2020 • © 2020 IOP Publishing Ltd

Aerosol-Jet-Printed Graphene Immunosensor for Label-Free Cytokine Monitoring in Serum by Kshama Parate, Sonal V. Rangnekar, Dapeng Jing, Deyny L. Mendivelso-Perez, Shaowei Ding, Ethan B. Secor, Emily A. Smith, Jesse M. Hostetter, Mark C. Hersam, and Jonathan C. Claussen. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 2020, 12, 7, 8592–8603 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsami.9b22183 Publication Date: February 10, 2020 Copyright © 2020 American Chemical Society

Both papers are behind paywalls.

You can find the NanoSpy website here.