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Gutopia: A Microbial Paradise

The development of the microscope in the 17th century magnified our awareness of a microbial universe previously invisible to the naked eye. Anton van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutch textile draper and science hobbyist, was one of the first individuals to glance into the microbial looking glass and identify unicellular organisms (so-called animalcules) such as protozoa and bacteria [1]. His colleague, Robert Hooke, went on to publish the seminal text, Micrographia, which described his observations of microfungi [2]. Two centuries later, Louis Pasteur validated the role of microbes in fermentation. However, Pasteur also gave weight to Ignaz Semmelweis’ controversial germ theory of disease stating that microbes have the capacity to cause pathological effects on our human health [3].

leeuwenhoek

Early microbial drawings by Anton Van Leeuwenhoek [Photo Credit: Yale University Press]

These early studies in microbiology have provided significant insight on the human-microbe interaction characterized by either mutually beneficial or lethal outcomes. The duality of microbial behavior has dramatically impacted our perception of these microorganisms. Our cultural germophobia often precludes our ability to recognize the naturally transformative and symbiotic properties of microbes from the fermentation of grape juice into wine to their invaluable role in human digestion.

Michael Pollan, author of Cooked, explores a myriad of cooking traditions including those that directly involve the action of microbes such as bacteria and yeast. In his depiction of ancient sourdough recipes, he lists four ingredients: whole grain flour, water, salt, and the repertoire of microbes in the air [4]. The microbes catalyze slow-fermentation reactions (taking up to 24 hours) that leaven the bread while transforming molecules into digestible nutrients for us to absorb.

Whether we can stomach it or not, we all possess unique microbial signatures that are composed of trillions of microorganisms living both inside our bodies and on the surface of our skin [5]. These microbial communities, referred to as the human microbiome, cohabitate in our various mucosal, gastrointestinal, and epidermal surfaces. Symbiotic microbes are tolerated by our immune system and work collaboratively with our own bodies to digest the foods that we eat at the molecular level.

Our evolutionary history with bacteria is fueled by the currency of nutrition. In other words, our diet has a significant impact on the composition of our gut microbiota. Food consumption habits can either encourage the intestinal bloom of beneficial bacteria or opportunistic, disease-causing bacteria. Certain foods contain vital prebiotic molecules that encourage the expansion of beneficial bacterial species in the gut. High fiber foods including whole grains (brown rice, oats), vegetables (broccoli, peas) and legumes (lentils, black beans) contain an invaluable source of metabolic substrates that are converted into short-chain fatty acids by bacteria [6]. These short-chain fatty acids, such as butyrate, help to propagate microflora such as Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus and maintain gastrointestinal tissue health [7].

If we were to design a perfect microbial habitat–a Gutopia, if you will, it would be a homeostatic organ city of diverse symbiotic microbiota that is rich in fiber economy and free of any harmful pollutants. However, our dietary choices can tip the balance of this intestinal paradise and create a dystopic environment suitable for the expansion of pathogenic microbes.

Contemporary eating habits that are characteristically high in fat and carbohydrates are responsible for the emergence of modern diseases such as diabetes, colorectal cancer, and inflammatory bowel diseases [8-11]. Recent studies suggest that compositional changes in the intestinal microbiome can encourage the bloom of disease-causing microflora. The dramatic alteration of today’s eating behavior introduces gastrointestinal disturbances or challenges that our bodies and microbial counterparts have not evolved to accommodate. For example, a study investigating the consumption of different dietary fats in immunocompromised IL-10/ mice identified the expansion of B. wadsworthia; a gram-negative, sulfur-reducing species of bacteria flourished in mice fed a diet high in saturated fat , but not in low-fat or polyunsaturated fat diets [12-13]. The bloom of B. wadsworthia was attributed to the unregulated production of a bile salt known as taurocholic acid brought about by the overconsumption of saturated fat.

danico-burger-gut

Imbalanced dietary intake and overconsumption of foods high in saturated fats can impact the ecology of gut microbiota [Illustration by Grace Danico]

Taurocholic acid is an important source of sulfur that can stimulate the growth and maintenance of the pathogenic B. wadsworthia in these mice. The presence of this bacterium activates murine proinflammatory immune defense mechanisms that compromise the permeability of gut mucosal tissue causing intestinal inflammation. This pathogenic etiology of gut inflammation is implicated in the onset of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis [12-13].

Much like any city there are complications that arise, which can tip the balance between utopic and dystopic environments. In the case of our gut health, we should imagine ourselves as landscape architects cultivating the balanced ecology of our microbiome. If we feed our intestinal gardens with the right balance of foods we can foster the growth of symbiotic bacteria while discouraging the bloom of pestilent, pathogenic microbial weeds.

The human microbiome not only affects our gut health but can have some profound effects on our behavior and brain function. Dr. Elaine Hsiao, Assistant Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology at UCLA, investigates the interplay between our commensal microbes and their role in neurological development and function. Her work has linked the perturbations in gut microbiota with the onset of neurological disorders such as autism [14].

As we continue to study the ecology and diversity of microbes living within and around us, we are faced with many fundamental challenges in testing the dynamics of these microbial communities. From a clinical perspective, physicians and researchers alike have utilized human fecal samples to identify unique microbial gut profiles in their patients. These samples serve as powerful investigative tools in our pursuit to understand how certain commensal microbes can cause or serve as diagnostic readouts. The power of the sequencing technology used to characterize microbes in stool samples (16s RNA sequencing) comes from its level of coverage-the ability to identify the majority of bacteria in a sample. However, sequencing depth-the resolution at which a species can be identified remains challenging. Additionally, many microbial species have been challenging to culture in vitro, making it difficult for researchers to repeatedly perform experiments in a laboratory setting and gain a deeper mechanistic understanding of microbial behavior and ecology.

Dr. Rachel Dutton, Assistant Professor in the Division of Biological Sciences at UCSD, addresses some of these technological limitations by studying the establishment and maintenance of microbial communities in different types of cheeses. With this model, her lab can investigate the interactions of different types of microbes to better understand them as ecological systems [15-16].

Science & Food is honored to host Elaine Hsiao and Rachel Dutton for the 2016 UCLA Science & Food public lecture series to elaborate on their findings.  They will be accompanied by Sander Katz, author of Wild Fermentation, who will discuss the transformative properties of microbes in the production of foods like sauerkraut.

Join us on Wednesday, May 11th at 7PM in Schoenberg Hall at UCLA for “Microbes: From Your Food to Your Brain” to learn more about the intriguing world of microbes!

References cited

  1. Gest H. “The discovery of microorganisms by Robert Hooke and Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek, fellows of the Royal Society”. Notes Rec R Soc Lond. 5 (2004). 187-201.
  2. Hooke R. “Micrographia” Jo. Martyn & Ja. Allestry (1665).
  3. “The History of the Germ Theory” The British Medical Journal. 1 (1888).
  4. Pollan M. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Penguin Books. (2013).
  5. Abbott A. “Scientist bust myth that our bodies have more bacteria than human cellsNature. (2016).
  6. Leone V, Chang EB, Devkota SD. “Diet, microbes, and host genetics: the perfect storm in inflammatory bowel disease” J. Gastroenterol 48 (2013). 315-321.
  7. Sartor RB,.“Microbial influences in inflammatory bowel disease: role in pathogenesis and clinical implications” Elsevier (2004). 138-162.
  8. Hotamisligil, GS. “Inflammation and metabolic disorders” Nature. 444 (2006). 860-867.
  9. Parkin DM, Bray F, Ferlay J, et al. “Global cancer statistics” CA Cancer J Clin. 55. (2005). 74-108.
  10. Loftus EV Jr. “Clinical epidemiology of inflammatory bowel disease: incidence, prevalence, and environmental influences” Gastroenterology 126. (2004). 1504-1517.
  11. Molodecky NA, Soon IS, Rabi EM, et al. “Increasing incidence and prevalence of the inflammatory bowel diseases with time, based on systemic review” Gastroenterology 142. (2012). 46-54.
  12. Devkota SD, Wang Y, Musch MW, et al. “Dietary-fat-induced taurocholic acid promotes pathobiont expansion and colitis in Il10-/- mice” Nature. 487 (2012). 104-108.
  13. Devkota SD, Chang EB. “Diet-induced expansion of pathobionts in experimental colitis” Gut Microbes. 4:2 (2013). 172-174.
  14. Hsiao E.Y., “Gastrointestinal issues in autism spectrum disorder”, Harv Rev Psychiatry, 22 (2014). 104-111.
  15. Wolfe BE, Dutton RJ. “Fermented Foods as Experimentally Tractable Microbial Ecosystems” Cell. 161(1) (2015). 49-55.
  16. Wolfe BE, Button JE, Sanarelli M, Dutton RJ. “Cheese rind communities provide tractable systems for in situ and in vitro studies of microbial diversity” Cell. 158 (2014). 422-433.

Anthony MartinAbout the author: Anthony Martin received his Ph.D. in Genetic, Cellular and Molecular Biology at USC and is self-publishing a cookbook of his favorite Filipino dishes.

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Space Meals & Mushroom Batteries

spaceinfographic

Ever wondered about the foods that get sent into space? This nifty infographic covers everything from space food history, preservation, packaging and labeling, and fun facts such as why wine can’t go into space and “vomit comet”. Back on Earth, researchers at UC Riverside Bourns College of Engineering used portabello mushrooms to create a new type of lithium-ion battery anode. This new battery is believed to stop cell phone batteries from degrading over time.
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Structural Changes in Chocolate Blooming

Is there anything more disappointing than finding a chocolate bar in the back of the desk drawer, anticipating a tasty treat, then unwrapping the bar only to find a dull, grey haze has overtaken your dear candy? Seeing as bloomed chocolate is still edible, yes, there are many things more disappointing than that. But surely you’re curious about how chocolate that was once shiny and perfect came to be filmy and rough. Chocolate blooming, the process that produces the white-grey film that appears on the surface of an old chocolate, is due to molecular migration. More specifically, this imperfection is caused by the movement of fats to the surface of the chocolate followed by a subsequent recrystallization. In a paper published by Applied Materials & Interfaces, a team of researchers dedicated to keeping our chocolates blemish-free has clarified the precise mechanisms that cause chocolate blooming.

The main fat in chocolate is cocoa butter, which is solid at room temperature and melts at 37 degrees Celsius. The proportion of solid to liquid cocoa butter depends on the lipid composition, which depends on which specific triglycerides are present. The solid to liquid proportion also varies with the storage conditions of the chocolate.

As proposed by Aguilera et al, scientists who study this chocolate blooming, consider chocolate as a particulate medium of fat-coated particles such as cocoa solids, sucrose, and milk powder, all suspended in a fat phase with the aid of an emulsifier, which helps to mix fats and oils with water, which usually repel each other. There are six crystallographic polymorphs of cocoa butter molecules, that is, there are six ways the molecules can organize themselves. The structural stability of these polymorphs increases from 1- 6; form 1 is the best at forming solid butter at room temperature, while form 6 tends to arrange in the loose bonds of a liquid. Form 5 is the main form in chocolate, as it possesses the most aesthetically desirable properties. While the phenomenon of blooming is well known to result from melting and recrystallization of chocolate into a less desirable polymorph, it has been unclear how fat moves through the chocolate particle network: Does it move along the fat-particle interface? Does it diffuse through the fat phase (cocoa butter), or through the matrix of assorted particles?

Possible lipid migration pathways in chocolate - Reinke et al

Possible lipid migration pathways in chocolate – Reinke et al

In this experiment, researchers used synchrotron microfocus small-angle X-ray scattering to determine the preferential migration pathway of the cocoa butter molecules surrounded by three different soild components (cocoa solids, skim milk, and sucrose). This technique allows researchers to record the scattering of x-rays through a sample with defects in the nanometer range. They can then extrapolate information about the material’s macromolecules, their shapes and sizes up to 125 nanometers, and distances between partially ordered materials, such as pore sizes. For this experiment, this method is better than more traditional macroscopic techniques as the sample does not need to be dissected in order to examine it, therefore the same sample can be continually analyzed.

Sketch of the experimental setup - Reink et al

Sketch of the experimental setup – Reink et al

The researchers prepared and tempered four different chocolate samples. An initial scattering of x-rays and data collection was performed before the addition of sunflower oil, then 10 uL of oil was pipetted onto the chocolate surface, and a second scan was performed. Images of the droplet were captured through a high-speed camera. These scans were repeated at 5, 10, and 30 minutes after oil addition, and again after 1, 2, 5, and 24 hours.

The results obtained suggest that oil is migrating through pores and cracks in the solid structure driven by capillarity within seconds. This means that the oil can flow in narrow spaces in opposition to gravity. Then chemical migration through the fat phase occurs. The oil doesn’t traverse the fat-particle interface, nor does it move through the matrix of solid particles. This migration disrupts the crystalline cocoa butter, which induces softening.

Because the most immediate migration of oils occurs through the material porous structure, the formation of chocolate bloom could be prevented by minimizing pores and defects in the chocolate matrix. To prevent the longer-term effects of chemical migration of lipids, one must minimize the content of non-crystallized liquid cocoa butter. Tempering chocolate lends to crystalline structures that resist migration, as will reducing the liquid fat content. However, to ensure that you never encounter a sad hazy chocolate again, we recommend eating all chocolate goods expeditiously.

Works Cited

  1. Tracking Structural Changes in Lipid-based Multicomponent Food Materials due to Oil Migration by Microfocus Small-Angle X-ray Scattering. Svenja K. Reinke, Stephan V. Roth, Gonzalo Santoro, Josélio Vieira, Stefan Heinrich, and Stefan Palzer. ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces 2015 7 (18), 9929-9936. DOI:10.1021/acsami.5b02092
  2. Aguilera, J. M.; Michel, M.; Mayor, G.Fat Migration in Chocolate: Diffusion or Capillary Flow in a Particulate Solid?—A Hypothesis PaperJ. Food Sci. 2004, 69, 167–174

 


Elsbeth SitesAbout the author: Elsbeth Sites received her B.S. in Biology at UCLA. Her addiction to the Food Network has developed into a love of learning about the science behind food.

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Anyone Can Be a Kitchen Scientist

If anyone can cook, then anyone can do science! (Photo credit: Pixar)

If anyone can cook, then anyone can do science! (Photo credit: Pixar)

“Anyone can cook!” declared Chef Auguste Gusteau in the classic animated film Ratatouille. We’ll go a step further: with a little cooking know-how and access to a kitchen anyone can do science. Each spring the students of the Science & Food undergraduate course prove us right as they research and experiment their way toward apple pie enlightenment.

But you don’t have to be a student in our course to be a savvy kitchen scientist. One of our younger readers, Vincent, recently won his local seventh grade science fair by carefully crafting and conducting his own kitchen experiment. By baking cookies with different temperatures of light (reduced fat) butter, Vincent determined that frozen butter creates a chewier cookie than melted butter. His scientifically proven chewy chocolate chip cookie recipe appears at the end of the article.

Vincent’s project is a great example of a successful kitchen experiment. For those of you who are avid kitchen experimenters or are thinking of dipping a toe into the world of kitchen science, we’ve summarized the key features of Vincent’s project that will help make any (kitchen) science experiment a success.

Vincent’s winning science fair project.

Vincent’s winning science fair project.

A close-up of Vincent’s project. Note the number of cookies baked for each butter condition.

A close-up of Vincent’s project. Note the number of cookies baked for each butter condition.

Keys to a successful (kitchen) experiment

A questionScientific research has to start somewhere, and it almost always starts with a thought-provoking question. Why is the sky blue? Why do apples fall from trees? In this case Vincent wanted to know how the temperature of butter affects the chewiness of chocolate chip cookies.

A testable hypothesis – Once researchers have a question in mind, they need to come up with a testable hypothesis. The key word here is testable. Having a testable hypothesis guides researchers as they design effective experimental procedures. Based on a bit of background research and a dash of reasoning, Vincent hypothesized that cookie chewiness would be directly proportional to the temperature of the butter (hotter butter = chewier cookie). Vincent knew he could directly test his hypothesis by baking cookies with different butter temperatures and having a panel of tasters rate the chewiness of each cookie.

A carefully controlled experiment – When designing an experiment, it’s crucial to only change one variable, or component, at a time. Vincent was careful to only test one factor—butter temperature—and keep everything else in the experiment constant.

A large enough sample sizeOnce you’ve perfected your experimental design, repeat, repeat, repeat! Mistakes happen. And even the most thoughtfully executed experiments can go haywire because of factors beyond our control. Ovens have hot spots. Humidity can change the moisture of dough. To help avoid these potential pitfalls, Vincent made eight cookies at each butter temperature and had five different taste-testers rate the cookies.

A thoughtful analysis of the results – At the end of it all, what good is a bunch of data if it doesn’t actually mean anything useful? Based on his taste test, Vincent found that frozen butter produced the chewiest cookies, the exact opposite of his hypothesis! Like a true scientist, Vincent discounted his original hypothesis and offered up some pretty insightful ideas to explain his observations:

“The cookies with melted light butter were the least chewy, almost crunchy. I think this happened because, since there was more moisture in the batter with the melted butter, the cookies spread out more and got flat, exposing more surface area. This caused more water to evaporate quickly.”

A follow-up experimentThe work of a scientist is never done. Answering one question inevitably opens the doors to many more. As for Vincent, he’ll likely be back in the kitchen repeating his experiment with regular butter instead of light butter. “Doing this again,” he wrote in his report, “would not be a problem at all since I love baking and eating cookies!”

Do you experiment in the kitchen?
Write to us at scienceandfooducla (at) gmail (dot) com and tell us about your best kitchen experiment. We’ll feature our favorite feats of kitchen science on the site!

 

Vincent’s Scientifically-Tested Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from Mel’s Kitchen Café

Ingredients

1 cup light butter, frozen and cut into cubes
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup packed light brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3 1/2 cups flour
2 cups chocolate chips


Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream butter and both sugars together until well mixed. Add eggs and mix for 2-3 minutes, until the batter is light in color. Add salt, vanilla, baking soda and mix. Add flour and chocolate chips together and mix until combined.

Drop cookie batter by rounded tablespoon onto parchment paper or silpat lined baking sheets and bake for 10 minutes until lightly golden around edges but still soft in the center.

 


Liz Roth-JohnsonAbout the author: Liz Roth-Johnson earned her Ph.D. in Molecular Biology at UCLA. If she’s not in the lab, you can usually find her experimenting in the kitchen.

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Lena Kwak

A graduate of Rhode Island’s Johnson & Wales Culinary Institute, Cup4Cup President and Co-Founder Lena Kwak began her culinary career as a private chef and caterer. While serving as Research & Development Chef for The French Laundry, Kwak was tasked with testing edible innovations. She excelled quickly and was assigned to devise a gluten-free version of Chef Thomas Keller’s famed Salmon Cornet. The result, which garnered a tearful response from a dinner guest with gluten intolerance, was the genesis of “Cup4Cup.” Since Cup4Cup’s release in 2011, Lena has been honored as one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30” in 2011 and garnered a Zagat “30 Under 30” award in 2012.

See Lena Kwak June 1, 2014 at “Harnessing Creativity (and the Science of Pie)”

Lena-Kwak_C4C

What hooked you on cooking?
It was my mother, who is the quintessential Asian tiger mom. When it came to food, this is how she expressed her love for her family through her cooking. Around meals, I would see how her tough as nails exterior would melt as she watched her family eat the dishes she poured her love into. I would say that is how I learned what I loved about cooking even to this day—it is a way to express care and love and a way to strengthen human connections.
The coolest example of science in your food?
As a chef, I believe the coolest part about cooking is to recognize the series of chemical reactions that occur when you execute a certain recipe. When you begin to understand the technicality behind certain reactions, you are able to hone in on how to make improvements, or for that matter, also innovate a dish based on the science.
The food you find most fascinating?
Funny enough, it’s wheat flour as it’s something I’ve researched heavily over the years. I’ve grown an appreciation for how complex the ingredient is for being made up of a single composition. It provides structure, flavor, coloring, and a wide range of different textures. I’d say it’s the admiration for the ingredient that pushes me to continue the product development of gluten free products, as it would be truly a shame to not be able to experience those wonderful qualities for someone who couldn’t have gluten.
What scientific concept—food related or otherwisedo you find most fascinating?
That’s a tough question as I have always been fascinated with innovation in medical science, but as it related to my profession, I am also thoroughly interested in human science. For consumer product goods companies, such as Cup4Cup, there is a heavy consideration of human eating behaviors. The success of any product is not just based on a perception of a single individual, but the perception of millions of people. so, it is important to understand the average consumer perception within different target categories. What people choose to buy provides us with key insight into what influences human perception.
Your best example of a food that is better because of science?
Chocolate has come a long way from the first records of consumption by the Aztecs and Mayans. Over centuries, it has only been improved by the further understanding of the cacao bean itself. Through science, we’ve been able to figure out processes to improve texture, taste, and performance of chocolate. For example, the improvements that are made through tempering or conching.
How do you think science will impact your world of food in the next 5 years?
Finding solutions to keep up with the supply and demand as populations of the world increase every year and life span of individuals grows longer. It will be interesting and necessary to see what solutions there are to be able to sustain the growing public. To that same point, finding ways to improve the yield of food sources while being sustainable and not destructive to the environment.
One kitchen tool you could not live without?
A spoon.
Five things most likely to be found in your fridge?
Eggs, almond milk, at least one type of hearty greens, hummus, and chocolate covered pretzels (yes, cold).
Your all-time favorite ingredient?
Hands down my favorite ingredient is eggs.
Favorite cookbook?
For favorite cookbook (similar to picking your favorite child) I’d say as of this moment it’d have to be Jerusalem.
Your standard breakfast?
Eggs, sunny side up or a six minute boil, plus starch, vegetable, or grain, plus sautéed greens. (What can I say, I wake up hungry…)

Nutrition Neuroscience & Flavor Perception

Frosting

Our next public lecture is coming up fast! To get ready for How We Taste, read up on how Dr. Dana Small is helping us scientifically understand our relationship with food. Read more

Dana Small

Dr. Dana Small is a Professor in Psychiatry at Yale University, a Fellow at the John B. Pierce Laboratory, and visiting Professor at the University of Cologne. Her research focuses on understanding the mechanisms behind flavor preference formation, investigating the role of cognition in chemosensory perception, and determining how the modern food environment impacts brain circuitry.  She currently serves on the executive committee for the Association for Chemoreception Sciences and the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior.

See Dana Small May 14, 2014 at “How We Taste”

dana_small

What hooked you on science? On food?
I just loved biology class. It was love at first sight. I became a neuroscientist interested in flavor and food because I wanted to understand neural circuits that regulate appetitive behavior. Neuroimaging had just become available and I wanted to know if what we understood about the neurobiology of appetitive behavior in rodents applied to humans. The rodent work was based on studies where rats pressed a lever to have food pellets dispensed. I guess that means that rat chow got me hooked on food!
The coolest example of science in food?
Jelly beans because they are the perfect food to demonstrate that “taste” is mostly smell.
The food you find most fascinating?
Soufflé.
What scientific concept–food related or otherwise–do you find most fascinating?
Evolution. I am interested in understanding how the environment shapes biology—including the food environment.

Are there any analogies you like to use to explain difficult or counterintuitive food science concepts?

If I can speak of neuroscience of flavor, then I like to compare the oral capture illusion (which occurs when volatiles that are in the nose are referred to the mouth) with the visual capture that occurs when one watches TV. The sounds comes from the speakers but appears to come from the actors’ mouths.
How does your scientific knowledge or training impact the way you cook?
My scientific knowledge totally influences how I cook and eat. I avoid all artificial sweeteners and liquid calories (OK, except wine). I rarely eat processed food. I buy organic and try to eat locally. I eat a big breakfast and a light dinner. I avoid foods high in glycemic index (except on a special occasion) and search out high fat yogurt as a favorite lunch.
One kitchen tool you could not live without?
In truth I should be kept out of the kitchen!
Four things most likely to be found in your fridge?
Raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries.
Your all-time favorite ingredient?
Eggplant.
Your standard breakfast?
Steel cut oats, pomegranate seeds, blueberries, raspberries, and sliced almonds. Its my biggest meal of the day. Double latte.

Pizza Nanophysics & The Bacon Genome

pizzatossing

As we saw earlier this week, scientific progress can collide with the food world in some truly unexpected ways. Continuing this theme, pizza tossing helps nanophysicists design tiny motors, while pig genome research holds the key to tastier bacon. Read more

Sky-High Spuds

In the not-so-distant future, surfing the web at 35,000 feet will be just as reliable as going online at your favorite coffee shop. Who do we thank for this aeronautical innovation? Teams of engineers have been leading the charge to bring us quality in-flight internet, but there’s another WiFi hero you probably didn’t expect… potatoes!

Photo credit: Boeing

Photo credit: Boeing

Providing strong and consistent WiFi throughout a crowded airplane cabin presents an interesting challenge. Because the human body can interfere with WiFi signals, a cabin full of passengers can wreak havoc on an otherwise stable internet connection. But running rigorous WiFi tests on a full, airborne flight is impractical. And holding passengers hostage for days in a grounded airplane cabin is just unthinkable.

Enter the potato. Potatoes and humans have comparable dielectric properties, meaning that they similarly interact (and interfere) with WiFi signals. Engineers at Boeing used this to their advantage, creating a new way to test the quality of airline WiFi sans humans. The aptly named “project SPUDS” (Synthetic Personnel Using Dielectric Substitution) used 20,000 pounds of potatoes to quickly optimize the effectiveness and safety of WiFi signals aboard decommissioned airplanes.

When this breakthrough hit newsstands back in 2012, Boeing made it clear that potatoes weren’t in their original plan. In reality, SPUDS serendipitously took off when the research team stumbled across a paper from the Journal of Food Science describing the dielectric properties of 15 fruits and vegetables.

It turns out that food scientists have been studying the dielectric properties of fruits and vegetables for quite some time, as these properties determine how foods behave in a microwave oven. Dielectric properties describe how materials interact with electromagnetic waves, including those emitted by microwave ovens. In particular, dielectric properties determine how much energy a food can absorb in a microwave oven and how far into the food the microwaves will penetrate. Such information is especially useful to industrial food processors who often use microwaves to cook, pasteurize, dry, or preserve various food products.

WiFi signals are typically transmitted at a frequency (2.40 GHz) that is remarkably close to the frequency produced by microwave ovens (2.45 GHz). Thanks to the work of food science researchers, Boeing engineers could confidently choose the potato as their ideal human stand-in.

Thinking about this story, it’s hard not to marvel at the interconnectedness of science. Those food scientists probably never imagined that their work would eventually help improve internet access. And those Boeing engineers must have been pretty surprised to find themselves perusing the latest in food science research. It can be difficult to predict where our ongoing pursuit of knowledge will lead us, but one thing is clear—when it comes to expanding our view of science and making new connections, the sky’s the limit.


Liz Roth-JohnsonAbout the author: Liz Roth-Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in Molecular Biology at UCLA. If she’s not in the lab, you can usually find her experimenting in the kitchen.

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Prehistoric Cheese & Acid Whey

prehistoriccheese

Biochemists discover the remains of prehistoric cheese, while Modern Farmer looks at Chobani’s acid whey problem. Read more