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Online Game Harnessed to Combat Foodborne Toxins

Maize with aflatoxin

Maize with aflatoxin molds (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences)

16 October 2017. A consortium of companies and university labs is recruiting participants in an online computer game to design synthetic proteins to neutralize a toxin that contaminates food crops. The project aims to design a protein that degrades aflatoxins, a naturally occurring poison that affects food stocks, particularly in the developing world, and known to cause liver cancer.

Aflatoxins are molds produced by fungi, which are generally eliminated early in the supply chain by regulatory authorities in the developed world, but in limited resource areas can poison food stocks, including basic staples like maize and nuts. The molds are highly toxic to animals and humans, and as a result can be passed along to humans by livestock eating contaminated feed. University of California in Davis, one of the participants in the initiative, cites data that show aflatoxins cause some 90,000 cases of liver cancer a year, along with stunted growth and immune system disorders.

The initiative is recruiting participants in FoldIt, an online protein folding game, to design a synthetic protein that best degrades and neutralizes aflatoxins. FoldIt is a game platform where individuals compete to assemble amino acid building blocks into complex proteins. Participants design their amino acid assemblies into chains, with folds in the chains made to achieve specific shapes that in turn achieve specific purposes. FoldIt games are sometimes used, as in this case, to crowdsource solutions for protein folding problems, with imagination and problem-solving ability as important as scientific knowledge to craft a solution.

In addition to UC-Davis, participants in the project include Northeastern University in Boston and University of Washington in Seattle that developed the FoldIt platform. Also taking part are the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa, food products company Mars Inc., and life science devices and products company Thermo Fisher Scientific.

Participants in the FoldIt game will be given an enzyme with the potential to neutralize aflatoxins by degrading a key protein structure called a lactone ring. In its current state, however, the enzyme is ineffective. FoldIt participants are asked to restructure the enzyme to interact with aflatoxin molecules to degrade the lactone ring, and thus reduce the molecules’ toxicity.

“While aflatoxin has been a known issue for decades,” says UC-Davis biochemist Justin Siegel in a university statement, “advances in computation and biotechnology, coupled with the imagination of players from around the world, may finally result in a solution to this pressing problem.” Siegel adds that, “No single organization can tackle a problem this large, but the uncommon collaboration between the groups coming together here will enable us to not only discover a potential solution, but translate it in a way that has real impact.”

The first round of the Aflatoxin Challenge is now underway, with feedback provided as the puzzles become more complex. Siegel’s lab, supported by Mars Inc. will review the entries to find the most promising designs. Thermo Fisher Scientific is providing its gene synthesis services to encode the top designs. All FoldIt player designs will be available in the public domain, and will not be submitted for intellectual property protection.

Siegel tells more about the initiative in this audio interview with Scientific American.

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