Scientists Figure Out How to Unboil an Egg

Unboiling an Egg
Chemistry major Stephan Kudlacek is part of the team that has developed a way of unboiling a hen egg. Steve Zylius / UC Irvine

Scientists at the University of California Irvine have developed a way to unboil egg whites by “untangling” their proteins, a development that has the potential to significantly reduce costs for any biotechnology process that requires the folding of proteins.

“Yes, we have invented a way to unboil a hen egg,” UCI biochemistry professor Gregory Weiss said in a statement. “We start with egg whites boiled for 20 minutes at 90 degrees Celsius and return a key protein in the egg to working order.”

In a paper published Friday in the journal ChemBioChem, Weiss and his team of chemistry students describe a method capable of pulling apart tangled proteins and allowing them to refold.

Proteins are the workhorses within human cells. They copy DNA, and make it possible for the body to read the DNA. The folding of proteins is key to several fields; industrial chemists use it to make chemical reactions possible, and the medical industry needs to fold proteins for therapeutic treatments of diseases such as cancer. Often, though, when scientists attempt to fold proteins, they come out as “scrambled messes,” Weiss says.

“When they’re produced, they’re being jam packed into the cells at the same time as they are trying to synthesize. They get tangled up with each other and it’s a complete mess. That process is called ‘aggregation,’ and that’s what happens when you boil and egg,” Weiss explains. “This drives us nuts, as scientists, because it’s really hard to disentangle them later. Often times we have this protein that we want to study and it comes out and they’re just goo.”

To solve this, Weiss and his team invented a way to gently apply mechanical energy to pull the tangled proteins apart and give them a chance to refold.

“We start with egg whites and dissolve them in urea, so they go from a white solid to a liquid. Then we put them into a machine called a Vortex Fluid Device that spins the solution at a high speed, so the proteins are sort of gently pulled apart,” Weiss says.

The process doesn’t result in a gooey raw egg you would want to cook up and eat, because the egg white has been dissolved in other compounds. But one of the key proteins found in egg white is returned.

Weiss and his team have filed for a patent, and are raising funds to scale up the process to meet the needs of biotech companies. If all goes well, the invention has the potential to save several industries a lot of headache, and money.