Bioinformatics may isolate food allergy proteins

By Chris Mercer

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Gene

A team of UK scientists will analyse and demonstrate how
bioinformatics could help food companies improve their products,
from pin-pointing allergy-causing proteins to identifying the cause
of batch spoilage.

The scientists, based at Britain's Campden and Chorleywood Food Research Centre (CCFRA​), defined bioinformatics as "the collection, classification, storage and analysis of biochemical and biological information using computers"​.

Their year-long project now aims to show how this technology could be harnessed to help food and drink makers after originally being developed to help scientists in their attempts to map the human genome sequence.

John Dooley, a scientist on the project, believes bioinformatics are likely to help firms predict the allergenicity and functionality of products by examining their ingredients' protein structures.

A database of proteins could be built up to aid analysis. For example: "If I know the protein that causes allergens from nuts, can I use that to look for similar looking proteins from other nuts?"​ said Dooley.

He said that by identifying the right proteins it may even be possible to replace or remove certain ones to reduce the likelihood of a product causing an allergic reaction in the consumer.

For example, scientists may be able to remove or replace the allergenic proteins in gluten, the source of coeliac disease, so that they can breed new strains of bread-making wheat.

Such techniques offer obvious opportunities for product development, but could also help producers meet upcoming EU regulations on allergens in food. From 25 November this year, the Commission will require firms to declare on labels whether the product inside contains potential food allergens.

Bioinformatics should help ingredients and food producers take advantage of growing consumer demand for functional products too, by enabling them to identify functional qualities in proteins.

Dooley also believes that bioinformatics could be used to help food scientists trace back and isolate the source of microbial infections in food by examining how the bacteria has moved from place to place.

This would obviously save producers time and money by lowering product recalls and containing the risk of infection.

Dooley said bioinformatics technology was progressing quickly, but was still in its infancy in relation to these processes. "At this stage the information is not there, but the project will help the industry to know that they could have it in the future."

The technology remains fairly imprecise because it is hard to predict what different proteins will do, even if they appear similar to others.

Proteins and genomes often have multiple tasks too, and so it is hard to know what side-effects may be caused by altering, removing or replacing them.

One of the biggest tasks needed to make better use of bioinformatics will be to map out protein and genome structures of different ingredients.

Some work on this has already been done, or is at least starting.

Researchers at Indiana University in the US say there has been increasingly rapid sequencing of large portions of genomes from several 'species'. For example, baker's yeast, or Saccharomyces cerevisiae, has now been fully sequenced.

Whiskey and beer producers across the UK may also benefit from a new, £1.8m research project​ aiming to identify, and improve, the genetic make-up of barley; one of their most commonly used raw materials.

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