Scientists using "nature’s antifreeze" to work out how to make food last longer

Freezing food is a great time and money saver, but it comes with a complicated set of rules.

One of the most important is ensuring food has been completely thawed before it’s refrozen.

This is because most food has a high water content. Unlike most other things, water expands as it freezes, turning food mushy.

That’s why scientists have long been fascinated by polar fish that can survive in subzero water temperatures.

These fish have evolved a special set of proteins that prevent their internal water from forming ice crystals, allowing them to survive in these very harsh conditions.

It’s been widely recognised that unlocking the power of these "natural antifreeze" proteins may have a huge number of applications.

The use of cold conditions is essential to storing and transporting biological samples.

Examples include keeping organs viable for transplants or keeping vaccines stable. Not to mention making your food last longer.

At the moment, problems with water forming ice crystals can destroy biological material meaning freezing is not an option.

Either temperatures above freezing with shorter storage time frames must be used or expensive flash freezing methods can be considered. This highlights the need for novel techniques to aid freezing of biological materials which is why scientist are turning to the special proteins found in polar fish.

However, as with many incredible materials designed and used in nature, these proteins are incredibly hard to produce in labs. Meaning that the benefits of these proteins can not be realised.

Scientists from the Department of Chemistry and Warwick Medical School at the University of Warwick have produced bio-inspired versions of the polar fish proteins, and have shown not only that they can slow down ice crystalisation, but that they are also less toxic than the antifreeze agent currently used in biological studies.

These mimics may be more viable to produce on a large scale, compared to the natural fish proteins.

Warwick University report that: "The revolutionary method has potential applications within the food industry, organ transportation and medicine – as well as in laboratory research."

Professor Matthew Gibson, the lead scientist at Warwick University Department of Chemistry and Warwick Medical School, said: "Bacteria underpin a vast amount of basic biosciences and health research, but their storage and transport is based on an old method.

"Our bio-inspired solutions, which we have also used for mammalian cell storage, provide a new platform to hopefully improve the availability and quality of bacteria, but with an easy-to-use approach which does not involve researchers or industries significantly adjusting their laboratory procedures."

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