Transforming protein has been in the spotlight in the last decade as plant-based protein products grow in popularity. Current commercial processes rely on extruded plant protein to make meat substitutes, but Assistant Professor Derek Dee’s research focuses on changing protein on a nanomolecular level.
Funded by a New Frontiers Grant and still in its early stages, Dr. Dee’s research focuses on the process of manipulating plant protein for application in food production, as a meat substitute, and more. “We’re working with proteins on a molecular level,” he explains. “That’s a nanometre, or a billionth of a metre. This type of protein research spans biophysics and health science, and is novel in food science.”
Similar to prions, his lab unfolds and refolds legume proteins using a special tool called optical tweezers. The tweezers use lasers to trap a single molecule, allowing the team to observe proteins under different conditions. Dr. Dee’s lab creates new protein nanofibres by varying temperatures, salt concentrations, pH levels, and other factors.
Dr. Dee emphasizes the importance of state-of-the-art equipment to his research. “Optical tweezers have only been used in basic science, like chemistry or physics. Until 2016, if you wanted a good instrument, you had to build it yourself! Now there’s a company in the Netherlands who sells them. That’s what’s making this research possible.”
On the distant horizon, Dr. Dee sees bio-electronics and cell-structures as possible future collaborations. “This is still in the early stages and everything in between protein to fibre is a big question mark. We are working on how the fibrils are made and how to control them. Why do different plant fibrils look different? What causes them to react the way they do?”
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