This is Scientific American — 60-Second Science. I'm Steve Mirsky.
Aflatoxins. They're produced by funguses that infect crops. And they can cause liver cancer, immune damage and other health problems. Rare outbreaks related to peanuts or corn happen in the U.S. But aflatoxins are a big problem in the developing world.
"Pretty much every study that's out there shows that the vast majority of the food system is contaminated with aflatoxin, ranging from a few-fold to thousands of fold above the legal limit in the United States." Justin Siegel, a biochemist at U.C. Davis.
He's part of a team "an exciting set of uncommon collaborators with Mars Incorporated, Thermo-Fisher and a bunch of great universities" that wants to try to create an enzyme to attack aflatoxins at a vulnerable point—a part of their molecular structure known as a lactone ring. "So it's been shown in studies a long time ago that breaking this lactone ring decreases toxicity by several orders of magnitude. So it should render the molecule non-toxic at that point."
Some soil microbes make compounds that can bust apart lactone rings. "They naturally break down lactones. They just can't do this specific lactone. They can't break down aflatoxin."
So Siegel hopes that an enzyme that has the ability to attack lactones can be modified so that it works on aflatoxins. And maybe you can help—by playing Foldit.
"Foldit is a massively multiplayer online game that was developed at the University of Washington...it's a game that puts proteins online and allows users to manipulate the structures of these proteins like, you can almost think of it like a three-dimensional Tetris...players are really driven by a goal to get a good score. But that score is driven by actually a physical reality of how stable this protein is."
The game goes live today.
"The game stays live for two to three weeks and anyone who wants to play it can play it, they just go to Fold.It and they can access it...and we collect the solutions and the shapes and the structures that these players create, and it's really a creative process...and once we have those, because of the technology that Thermo Fisher is bringing to the table, they're gonna synthesize hundreds if not thousands of genes that correspond to the players' designs and that'll be done within just a few weeks. So from the first time the puzzle's posted to when we're expecting the first results is on the order of two to three months. And there might be a solution for the problem."
Thanks for listening for Scientific American — 60-Second Science. I'm Steve Mirsky.