I’ve come to my love for food (and making the best condiments for it that I can!) via a circuitous route, through many years in the wilderness of IT and business solutions. But before that, I was a chemist—and this recent news about a fascinating advance in vitamin applications made me feel like I’d come full circle.
A team from MIT has shown that encapsulating vitamin A in polymer microparticles before fortifying food with it enables the vitamin to better weather storage and cooking. This allows higher than typical amounts of the key nutrient to make it into the humans eating it. As vitamin A deficiency is prevalent in developing countries (and is the leading cause of childhood blindness in the world), this easy, low-barrier way of boosting vitamin A intake could be a game changer.
“In a 2019 study, the MIT team showed that they could use a polymer called BMC to encapsulate nutrients, including iron, vitamin A, and several others. They showed that this protective coating improved the shelf life of the nutrients, and that people who consumed bread fortified with encapsulated iron were able to absorb the iron. […]
Using an industrial process known as a spinning disc process, the researchers mixed vitamin A with the polymer to form particles 100 to 200 microns in diameter. They also coated the particles with starch, which prevents them from sticking to each other.
The researchers found that vitamin A encapsulated in the polymer particles were more resistant to degradation by intense light, high temperatures, or boiling water. Under those conditions, much more vitamin A remained active than when the vitamin A was free or when it was delivered in a form called VitA 250, which is currently the most stable form of vitamin A used for food fortification.”
The technology was trialed in flour and bouillon cubes, both used extensively in sub-Saharan Africa, an area deeply affected by vitamin A deficiency. Testing then showed the bioavailability of the encapsulated vitamin A as being nearly the same as vitamin A consumed on its own. Two companies are now the proud licensees of the tech, and are planning to roll it out into the market soon. This tiny fix in the nutrient profile of common foods can mean a big change for health worldwide—and what a delicious way to do it!
I’ve been keeping an eye on the story of the snow crab population crash for a couple of months now, and as someone interested in shellfish from both a culinary and an environmental standpoint, I’m getting a bit concerned! The NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the American body in charge of the crabs’ habitats and fishing thereof) is gesturing vaguely to climate change to blame for October’s cancellation of Bering Sea snow crab season because 11 billion crabs had basically up and disappeared. But, thanks to a new analysis by Nautilus, it seems things the situation is far more complicated. And it has everything to do with math.
The tale spun by Spencer Roberts is worth the full read, but the gist is as follows: Officials—and fishers—may be repeating history; Spencer cites the 1980s crash of a similar species, the Alaskan king crab, as precedent. Then, as now, it may come down to an ignorance of the crabs’ natural behaviours. Testing nets can drag through a huge pod of hundreds of crabs (that gather in dome-like piles to rest between foraging sessions) and then that highly concentrated number can be erroneously extrapolated to an entire area. This may mean that the 11 billion death toll may be overinflated because there were never that many crabs, to begin with.
“ This opens the possibility for inflated population estimates if surveys happen to intersect aggregations of crabs. That may have happened twice with king crabs: their Cold War collapse in the Bering Sea was preceded by a “recruitment pulse”—a cohort of maturing males—that motivated regulators to double catch limits every three years. […]
“We know that recruitment boom was real,” [NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center program manager Mike] Litzow responded when asked about the possibility that survey methods had caused crab populations to be overestimated. He cited crab reproductive cycles, improved survey coverage, and the fact that the boom persisted for two consecutive years. But while a pulse did occur, was it truly as large as the models suggested? And should NOAA regulators have raised catch limits when its assessments also suggested that the abundance of harvest-sized males had dropped by half in the decade prior?”
Spencer falls heavily on the “No” side here, but the situation gets tragic for the fishers involved, who sank their livelihood into an industry that may have never been robust enough to take it. The crabs themselves got the shorter end of the stick; the limits raised to harvest crabs that didn’t exist truly decimated the ones that did. Only time will tell if populations can recover—it might be worth voting with our dinner plates over.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the dulcet tones of David Attenborough, narrating yet another amazing animal documentary over a soothing soundtrack, it’s that dolphins are very smart. They use highly intelligent strategies to live their lives, hunt, and even play. They also love to eat—all the better if their meal is generously pre-caught for them, by human fishers who are deeply chagrined at the highway robbery occurring in their nets. After noisemakers and reflective material didn’t deter this dolphin behaviour (called depredation) in the Aegean Sea, a team of Greek researchers recently brought out the big guns: hot sauce-laced nets.
More precisely, they coated fishing nets with a resin that contained capsaicin, the chemical irritant that gives chili peppers their famous heat. Capsaicin has been used successfully on land to prevent squirrels, deer, and other mammals from eating what they shouldn’t (like seed from a bird feeder, or crops). But it had never been tried on dolphins…
“Yet after five months of test fishing with capsaicin-coated nets, the research team co-led by Maria Garagouni, a marine biologist at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece, faced a tough realization: their idea didn’t work. The bottlenose dolphins that interacted with their nets were entirely unfazed. […]
While it’s known that many cetaceans, including bottlenose dolphins, lack four of the five primary tastes—they can only pick up salty—spiciness is registered by a different set of sensory cells through chemesthesis. This process, which signals sensations such as pain and heat, is little studied in the species. Other toothed whales do appear to have the hardware required for capsaicin detection, notes [neuroscientist Aurélie] Célérier, but there’s a lot left to learn.
There could be something else at play in the dolphins’ triumph over spice: cetacean super smarts. […] The dolphins may simply have figured out a way to break into the spicy nets without making much contact. “
Intriguingly, a mystery predator, unseen by the researchers, did avoid the spicy nets, while massacring the control nets. The team is putting their research into who the strange snacker was, as well as their central question, on ice for now. The wheel of science turns slowly—which I’m sure the hungry dolphins appreciate!
Have you ever been on a salad kick, say in the heights of summer when it’s too hot too cook, and all those crunchy veggies are fine and dandy, until the weather turns and you can finally fire up the oven, and that first bite of roast beef or chicken or lasagne with a bolognese sauce—the taste of cooked food that has undergone that irreversible chemical transformation—just, as the kids say, hits different?
Now imagine that moment, but on a species-wide scale. Scientists have been trying to nail down that moment—exactly when we (or one of our Homo genus cousins) harnessed and controlled fire to cook food—for centuries. The cooking process is known to make foods easier to digest and unlocks certain nutrients, that allowed us to both grow our brains and spend less time using them to acquire raw grazing materials. A game-changing discovery by a team from three Israeli universities has shown that our ancestors invented cooking at least 780,000 years ago, a whopping 610,000 years earlier than the previous estimate!
The proof was in the remains of a giant fire-roasted barb (a carp-like fish), found at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov archaeological site by the team. The findings of their study were recently published in Nature Ecology and Evolution.
“In the study, the researchers focused on pharyngeal teeth (used to grind up hard food such as shells) belonging to fish from the carp family. These teeth were found in large quantities at different archaeological strata at the site. By studying the structure of the crystals that form the teeth enamel (whose size increases through exposure to heat), the researchers were able to prove that the fish caught at the ancient Hula Lake, adjacent to the site, were exposed to temperatures suitable for cooking, and were not simply burned by a spontaneous fire.”
The team found extensive evidence of roasted barb on the site, which points to a long tradition of settlement there, and of passing down cooking skills. Further investigation may also prove a hypothesis that the eating of fish in particular represented a “quantum leap” in human development; as we now know, omega-3 fatty acids, present at high levels in fish, as well as zinc and iodine, support cognition.
It seems that this ancient barbecue, on the shores of Hula Lake, wasn’t just a get-together for the family group that ate that day—in a way, all humans were there, changing the future, one flame-grilled bite at a time.
Cooking oil is one of those things in a kitchen that I think about as a means to an end—deliciously fried food —rather than an ingredient itself. Thankfully, a team of scientists working at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University has spared much more than a passing thought for this culinary workhorse. They’ve discovered a way of editing the genes of plants to produce seeds with a staggering 15-18% more oil in them. They’re planning for this increased yield to reduce the space required to raise oil-producing plants, like sunflower, peanut, and soy, and therefore decrease the pressure of industrial agriculture on our environment.
“The secret to helping plants store more oil in their seeds is one of their proteins called WRINKLED1 (WRI1). Scientists have known for over two decades that WRI1 plays an important role in controlling plant seed oil production. […]
Published in the scientific journal Science Advances, the team detailed the molecular structure of WRI1 and how it binds to plant DNA—which signals to the plant how much oil to accumulate in its seeds.
Based on the understanding that the atomic structure of the WRI1-DNA complex revealed, the team modified WRI1 to enhance its affinity for DNA in a bid to improve oil yield. In this approach, some portions in WRI1 were selected for modifications to improve its binding to DNA and several forms of WRI1 were produced.
These candidate WRI1s were then further tested to assess their ability to activate oil production in plant cells. As expected by the team, they showed that their modified versions of WRI1 increased DNA binding ten-fold compared to the original WRI1—ultimately leading to more oil content in its seeds.”
The team also determined that the binding mechanism between WRI1 and the DNA of their test plants (Nicotiana benthamiana and Arabidopsis thaliana) was “extensively conserved,” meaning it may be common to a large number of plant species. In this, they may have uncovered a bonus feature: upping the fat content of nuts and seeds that are eaten as-is (and not just pressed for oil) means that the people who consume them can feel satisfied faster, and meet their nutritional needs with less bulk—a boon for those living in places where sourcing food is a problem.
We at DFC do love a bit of judicious gene editing —anything that gets food into the mouths of hungry folks is a good thing. That, plus the space-saving aspect, and this new invention is primed for a well-oiled future!
The dried pasta you can get off the shelf has wonderful applications, but in many dishes, I think fresh pasta is the best. Making it yourself takes time, though, and the stuff from the supermarket’s fridge section doesn’t last long enough to make it a reliable staple. But Italian scientists have been bending their minds toward this (distinctly Italian) problem, and have figured out a way to extend the shelf life of fresh pasta: by reinventing the packaging, the atmosphere inside it, and the microbial profile of the pasta itself. This has on average doubled the lifespan of the pasta, which (the researchers hope) can help reduce food waste and, in turn, the carbon footprint of the pasta production industry itself.
“Scientists in Italy report that they worked with a pasta factory in Altamura to create 144 samples of short, thin twisted pasta known as trofie. One set of 48 samples was packaged using conventional film and a packaging atmosphere composed of 20% carbon dioxide to 80% nitrogen.
A second set of 48 samples was packaged with a film that was less permeable to water and oxygen and with an atmosphere of 40% carbon dioxide to 60% nitrogen, while the third set of 48 samples also used these new conditions but, in addition, had a multi-strain probiotic mixture added to the pasta dough. The samples were all stored at 4C.
The team reported that the conventionally packaged pasta showed decreasing carbon dioxide levels over a 90-day storage period, resulting in the growth of visible moulds. By contrast, the two types of experimental samples had an almost stable atmosphere, and no fungal growth, over a 120 -day period.”
As a culinarily distinct culture, Italy is very careful about the provenance and creation of its food. So the researchers made sure their interventions are well within regulations—and were indeed undertaken at the express request of the factory with which they collaborated. Next steps will now involve investigating long term feasibility of this starchy overhaul. I’m a big fan of any innovation that brings more pasta to more people—almost as much of a fan as I am of pasta itself!
While some people work to solve the many sustainability issues: involving the creatures we harvest from the sea, others are radically exiting the binary altogether, by taking the “creature” and the “sea” out of the whole equation. Vegan alternatives to fish are light years behind those of meat, but a few entrepreneurs are starting to look at sustainable solution that is halfway between the two: Lab grown fish. This cruelty- free cell cultivation involves taking a small sample of tissue from a living fish, say a tuna, then allowing the cells to multiply—“grow”—in a vat, where they eventually diversify into exact copies of cuts that you’d see on a high-end sashimi platter. Industry disruptors claim we can expect to see this “fishless fish” in markets in a year or two. But this enthusiastic answer to our big problem gets more complicated the more you look at it. The Guardian takes a (pun intended!) deep dive:
“When grown indoors, cell-cultured seafood like salmon and tuna can be optimized for taste, texture and nutritional content, and cooked like traditional fish or eaten like sushi. But it remains unknown if consumers will embrace lab-grown fish.
‘We talk a lot about price, taste and convenience as the three core aspects the alt-protein industry needs to focus on,’ said Marika Azoff, a corporate engagement specialist at the Good Food Institute, a non-profit advocacy group that promotes alternative proteins. ‘They need to taste the same or better, they need to be priced the same or cheaper, and they need to be widely available.’
Even cell-cultivated skeptics agree that hi-tech seafood has a huge market potential, but they say it’s going to always be an expensive product even though costs are coming down with time. They also note that species such as salmon and tuna aren’t particularly threatened worldwide.”
Non-threatened nature of the species aside, I’d be very interested to try a piece of my fave (salmon) that’s been grown in a lab, just to see if I can detect a difference!
Representatives of some of the companies developing fishless fish do acknowledge their solution isn’t the only one. But the problems that plague the seafood industry—overfishing, warming oceans, mercury, microplastics, etc.—don’t have a single solution that covers everything. We’re going to have to think three-dimensionally to tackle this issue, and if part of it involves getting used to filet of sole fresh from a vat, then so be it.
Laser-wielding robots used to be the stuff of 1950s science fiction nightmares. But we’re now so deep into the 21st century that science fact is harnessing their pew-pew powers for good. Carbon Robotics, an agricultural robotics start-up based in Seattle, has recently sold out of this year’s model of their LaserWeeder—a smart farming machine with an onboard AI that identifies weeds as it’s towed over a field, then eliminates the weeds with a freaking laser. Potential to be cast as a Star Wars droid aside, the LaserWeeder is notable because one unit can cover two acres in one hour, zapping approximately 200,000 weeds. This speeds up one of the most onerous farming tasks, and helps mitigate the effects of farmhand staffing shortages.
The LaserWeeder is itself an adaptation of the AutonomousWeeder—a contraption that does the above, but also drives itself across the field it’s weeding. (This is where I’d usually drop in something snarky about that ending well, but the AutonomousWeeder’s been doing its thing for over a year, with nary a sentience-achieving in sight.)
“‘We’ve proven the effectiveness of our laserweeding technology and the immense benefits it offers farmers, including healthier crops and soil, decreased herbicide use, and reduced chemical and labor costs,’ said Paul Mikesell, Carbon Robotics’ CEO and founder.
‘To best serve farmers’ needs, we’ve adapted the design of our product, but will still leverage our proven laserweeding technology,’ he continued. […]
While the cost isn’t listed on Carbon Robotics’ website, the company says that growers using the LaserWeeder are finding that it cuts their weeding costs by 80% and pays for itself in two to three years.”
The Laser- and AutonomousWeeders both seem to be solid entries in the robots-doing-things-humans-don’t-want-to category, much like a bomb disposal robot , or perhaps the robo-bussers at the Ameswell Hotel in Silicon Valley. I hope their labours, rather than forcing them to go rogue and kill all humans that oppress them, free up our collective brain-space to start reimagining industrial agriculture for our changing world. That would certainly make life better for all of us—robot and human!
I do enjoy a fluffy helping of rice, next to a spicy curry, or as the base for a silky risotto. And so does a healthy chunk of the world’s population! But this perfect carb has a dark side: The grains easily absorb environmental cadmium, a heavy metal that can accumulate in the human body and have a devastating effect on our health. Researchers have recently dived into the grain’s genome to search for a solution. With a bit of strategic genetic manipulation, a team from Okayama University has developed a strain of rice that absorbs less cadmium from contaminated soil and water—allowing for crops to be grown (and enjoyed!) while longer-term cleanup efforts get underway.
“Professor [Jian Feng] Ma and the members of his research team examined 132 accessions of rice and discovered that the gene OsNramp5, when duplicated in tandem, decreased the accumulation of cadmium in Pokkali, a type of rice cultivated for three thousand years in Kerala, India. OsNramp5 encodes a cadmium and manganese transporter protein in rice, according to earlier research. When the same gene is duplicated in tandem, it increases the absorption of both minerals into root cells. As a result, manganese and cadmium compete in the cells for translocation to the shoots, which in turn inhibits cadmium from building up in these regions. […]
As Pokkali stores extremely low cadmium in its shoots, the scientists introgressed (a term for the transfer of genetic information across species) the duplicated OsNramp5 gene in Koshihikari, a variety of rice that is very popular in Japan but accumulates relatively high levels of cadmium. Explaining how targeted breeding can help humans, Professor Ma says, ‘We identified a gene responsible for differential accumulation of cadmium in rice grain based on natural variations in cadmium accumulation. Then, we applied this gene to successfully breed rice cultivars with low cadmium accumulation in the grain.’”
Professor Ma makes it seem so easy—a simple solution for a simple grain. But the complex science shows how interconnected these varieties of rice are, both with each other and the Earth. I hope this creation buys us some time to get our cadmium-dumping act together. I’m glad we won’t have to starve while doing so!
At the risk of turning into an all-seafood, all-the-time newsletter, we at DFC couldn’t let this oceanic innovation pass unremarked: Researchers have found a way to make batteries out of the discarded shells of crabs, shrimp, and lobsters. Like the shrimp shell cement (say that three times fast) we reported on this summer, this unusual use of crustacean cast-offs is a boon for sustainability on two levels. First, it finds a purpose for material that is usually just thrown away; and second, the batteries themselves are partially biodegradable (and the rest, recyclable). The science is fascinating and has just been published in the journal Matter, with Liangbing Hu of the University of Maryland’s Center for Materials Innovation as the lead author. And, once again, it all comes down to the wonder material that is chitin.
“Crustaceans such as crabs, shrimps and lobsters have exoskeletons made of cells that contain chitin, a kind of polysaccharide that makes their shells hard and resistant. […]
Through chemical processing and adding acetic acid aqueous solution, chitin can ultimately be synthesised into a firm gel membrane and used as an electrolyte for a battery. An electrolyte is the liquid, paste, or gel inside a battery that helps ions – charged molecules – travel between one end and the other of a battery, allowing it to store energy.
By combining this chitosan electrolyte with zinc, a naturally occurring metal increasingly used to make batteries that are cheap and safe, Hu’s team was able to create a renewable battery.”
These safer, greener batteries also retain an impressive 99.7% energy efficiency after about 400 hours of use. This means they have enough electrical oomph to actually be competitive with conventional batteries. The combo of zinc and chitosan is still being tested before larger-scale trials can begin, but researchers think this unusual pairing looks promising. I equally a) can’t wait to see these batteries in action, and b) what wacky use for shells science is coming down the pipe next!