Greasing the Wheels of the Future with Cooking Oil-Boosted Seeds

Greasing the Wheels of the Future with Cooking Oil-Boosted Seeds

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!

First Pasta the Post: New Processing Keeps Noodles Fresh

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!

Fish without Fishing

fish without fishing

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.