Artwork by Kayla Downs
By Kayla Downs
Many people across the world began cooking at home more in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As with all new hobbies, there can be some struggles along the way! Have you ever accidentally hard-boiled an egg and wish you hadn’t? Well, scientists can now return that hen egg to its uncooked state!
Typically when boiling an egg, the proteins denature and become all tangled up when heat is applied, creating the cooked state and the opaque white color of the egg. In 2015, Australian scientist Dr. Tom Z. Yuan and his colleagues developed a tool, a small glass tube spun at very high speeds, called a Vortex Fluidic device (VFD) to untangle the proteins in an egg and essentially “uncook” it. Starting with an average hen egg, they boiled it for twenty minutes at 194 degrees fahrenheit. After it was boiled, they liquified it by adding a substance that ate away at the shell and began unfolding the proteins. Then, by using the VFD, they used the shearing forces to refold the egg white proteins to their original form (Yuan et al, 2015). By spinning the tube with the cooked egg at 5,000 rotations per minute, the solution towards the wall moves faster than the solution in the middle, that difference in velocity creates a shearing stress that repeatedly stretches and contracts the proteins until they form back into their original shape, “uncooking” the egg.
Typically, entropy, which is the measure of disorder in a state, is always increasing in the universe. When unboiling an egg, the proteins are moving from a less ordered state to a more ordered one, appearing to defy physics. But, in the process of uncooking, entropy is produced as heat, this offsets the decrease in entropy that is caused by going from a less ordered state to a more ordered one. The entropy still increases overall so the second all of thermodynamics is still demonstrated (Lewis 2015).
To many people, this would seem like a trivial discovery without much important real world application. It’s not like a dozen eggs are hard or expensive to come by. So why in the world are scientists spending time and money learning how to uncook an egg? Well, these scientists didn’t set out to unboil an egg, their goal was to develop something that could be used to aid cancer treatment research.
Understanding protein expression is crucial to a lot of research and industrial uses. In pharmaceutical and biomedical uses, proteins often “misfold” into the wrong shapes when they are formed, making them useless. Uses of “unfolding” and “refolding” proteins have been expensive and time consuming, such as the overnight dialysis method (Yuan et al, 2015). This method they used to uncook an egg took only minutes to unfold the proteins. Using this new method, developing things like cancer antibodies could be far quicker, cheaper, and less wasteful (Lewis 2015).
Sometimes in science, the things researchers discover and develop in labs have really important technical applications, and they can make the rest of us scratch our heads and giggle.
Yuan, Tom Z., et al. “Shear‐Stress‐Mediated Refolding of Proteins from Aggregates and Inclusion Bodies.” Chemistry Europe, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 23 Jan. 2015, chemistry-europe.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/cbic.201402427.
Lewis, T. “No Yolk! Scientists Unboil An Egg Without Defying Physics.” LiveScience, 28 Jan. 2015, https://www.livescience.com/49610-scientists-unboil-egg.html#:~:text=But%20in%20a%20new%20study,refold%20into%20their%20original%20shape.&text=%22Yes%2C%20we%20have%20invented%20a,Irvine%2C%20said%20in%20a%20statement.
Original artwork inspired by Viputheshwar Sitaraman’s diagram.