New enzyme makes melamine detection easier and cheaper, say researchers

By Rory Harrington

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Milk

A simple and cheap method of testing for melamine contamination of milk and other foods has been developed thanks to the discovery of a new enzyme, said US researchers.

A team at the University of Minnesota’s BioTechnology Institute (BTI) announced the finding which they said would make detection of melamine in milk, powdered milk, cream, ice-cream and chocolate drinks easier and less expensive. The group also has plans to adapt the system to uncover the presence of melamine in seafood and meat.

Cuts costs

“Development of the test responds to a call from the World Health Organization (WHO) for a simple, inexpensive method to detect melamine contamination in infant formula and other liquids,”​ said a BTI statement.

It added: “Until now, melamine testing required expensive laboratory equipment and skilled personnel. This kit simplifies the testing and reduces the cost of melamine detection.”

BTI members Larry Wackett and Michael Sadowsky said the breakthrough came after the fermentation of the melamine deaminase enzyme. The pair said the enzyme works by breaking one of the C-N bonds in melamine to release ammonia - which can then be detected by a simple test that turns the liquid blue. The discovery came as a junior member of the team was carrying out tests on biodegradation of s-triazine herbicides.

Partnership with industry

The new enzyme is now being used in biotech company Bioo Scientific’s MaxDiscovery Melamine Testing kit.

“Development of the melamine enzyme and the test kit is an example of how universities and industry can collaborate to foster basic science, education, and technology that benefits society,”​ says Wackett, who is a Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the College of Biological Sciences.

Chinese melamine scandal

Demand for a simplified testing kit was underlined by last year’s widespread melamine contamination of milk and dairy products in China, said the group. Six children died and an estimated 300,000 were sickened as a result of ingesting a range of milk-base products that had been laced with the industrial chemical to increase their apparent protein content.

“Larry Wackett’s research has revealed the power of microbial enzymes to modify and destroy toxic substances in the environment,”​ says Joe Krebs, Director of Protein Chemistry and Engineering at Bioo Scientific. “Our new enzymatic detection method takes this work in a new direction to provide a better approach for the detection of melamine contamination in the global food supply.”

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