FuelVida — Augmenting healthy eating by gene editing.
In collaboration with Sarah Jiang, Kiersten Ngeow, and Aliya Ojuade.
If given the choice between a vegetable salad or nice, fried chicken and crispy potato fries, people are more likely to go ahead and pick the fries.
84.8 million Americans consume fast food daily. That’s about 37% of all US adults, alone. However, when it comes to eating healthy, 97% of Americans are willing to pay more to eat healthier. This leads us to wonder: why is it that although a majority of Americans are willing to pay more to eat healthier, that 84.8 million Americans still eat unhealthily.
Why do they eat unhealthily?
This is where our problem of fast food addiction occurs. Fast food is addictive, but it’s also unhealthy. But when people have fast food addictions and try to switch to healthier ways of eating it’s hard. Why? It’s because of their addiction to fast foods that are often sweet and extremely processed. In the long run, this isn’t good for your health.
- Fast food contains chemicals that trigger the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This neurotransmitter is basically representative of a burst of happiness. Once you feel it, you want more — and then you consume more fast food in order to get that dopamine burst.
People are aware that fast food is unhealthy. It’s not the problem that they don’t know, but the problem is that healthy food is not as appealing as it should be. Fast food acts like crack, while healthy food is just a mild salt; both substances, but after a taste, one is much more likely to consume the former.
Additionally, healthy food is not cheap. In cases such as food deserts, buying a burger from McDonalds provides more value than buying one single banana from a local store when trying to sustain the whole day. In fact, in the case of produce, “more than 85 percent of consumers are not eating the federally recommended minimum of five servings of produce a day, according to an AC Nielsen poll of 2,472 people.”
Nationally, CDC-supported state surveys indicate that only 27 percent of adults are meeting the vegetable recommendation each day. On average, only 14 percent of American adults consume at least 2 servings of fruit and at least 3 servings of vegetables daily.
As there is a significant deficiency in the consumption of vegetables by adults, they are not gaining the necessary nutrients for keeping their bodies intact. This leads to an increased risk of heart disease and cancers, among other chronic diseases.
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What is the micro-reason for why people are not consuming healthy food?
Glucosinolate is a class of natural, organic compounds that are typically found in vegetables such as cabbages and mustard seed. These act as a self-defense mechanism for herbivores upon consumption. The bitter taste induced by glucosinolate causes the plants to ward off potential animals that might consume the plant.
The enzyme myrosinase performs hydrolysis on glucosinolate (which is the breakdown of a compound due to the addition of water). These produce isothiocyanates, which are known to “display anticarcinogenic activity because they reduce activation of carcinogens and increase their detoxification” (NCBI).
Basic idea (how these compounds are connected
TL;DR Glucosinolate is hydrolysized by myrosinase and a glucose group breaks apart (catalyst of myronaise).
Myrosinase — how is it hydrolyzed?
How it’s hydrolyzed:
- Thioglycosidase (enzyme) hydrolyzes a thioglucosidase bond
- Used in self defense against herbivores
Family of enzymes (which include):
These also release a variety of other products, depending on pH levels and other cofactors.
Since myrosinase is a heat sensitive enzyme, it can be denatured while cooking. Additionally, cooking vegetables can lead to glucosinolates being lost, but we can still taste these vegetables. This should be considered as we cook these vegetables as well; while glucosinolates are liked for their anti-cancer properties, they are also severely inhibited with cooking. The primary factor we would have to consider with vegetables is taste.
A previous study had used this to their advantage — with a number of steps, they used freeze-drying to remove water from glucosinolate-containing tissues while preventing the myrosinase-mediated glucose hydrolysis using thermal inhibition.
How it works:
- Use exogenous myrosinase (chemical involved in plant defense, used to convert glucosinolates into toxic products)
- Specifically the toxic products are isothiocyanate compounds
- Then you remove them using mild heat and negative pressure
- Result: Less than 80% reduction of glucosinolates!
Another method that has been utilized is using cold methanol extraction; with this extraction, glucosinolate is eliminated (especially in cold, 80 percent methanol conditions). However, this method does require quite a few steps and is not completely effective in preventing tissue disruption.
One particular direction we can go in is the genetic modification of proteins associated with such pathways. This will effectively inhibit myrosinase and thus glucosinolate production, while also not preventing other processes in the tissue which would allow for augmented taste.
CRISPR is one method we can use.
How does CRISPR work?
In bacteria/archaea, where CRISPR is derived from, the CRISPR/Cas systems protect cells from invading nucleic acids that could potentially harm the organism.
- Cas9 is a particular immune protein that is used to bind and “cut” a specific portion of a DNA sequence quite easily. They use complementary RNA to do so, and because it can go as specific as a base, it has been widely used for base editing and other genetic engineering methods.
- In CRISPR-Cas9 editing, two ends of a strand are cut, and the cell’s DNA repair mechanisms are relied on in order to make necessary edits. This is not very precise.
- In the case of creating a genetically modified organism in this context: the Cas9 system involves guide RNA that consists of a small piece of designed RNA scaffold called ‘guides’ that binds to the DNA thus creating a genetically modified organism.
- In base editing, Cas9 cannot cut the DNA — however, it acts as a guide to other enzymes which can rewrite the letter for a base change, which in turn modifies a specific protein. gRNA is still used in this case.
What FuelVida Aims to Achieve
FuelVida, our company, wants to utilize this knowledge to the best of our abilities for bettering the taste of vegetables in general. With the condition of our health being put at risk by unhealthy eating, FuelVida’s goal is simple: creating more appealing GMO-vegetables, so that people would be more inclined to consume this over other addictive, and sweet foods.
By applying gene editing techniques, our aim is to create a genetically modified version of traditional fruits and vegetables that promotes healthy eating without compromising the flavor of fast food.
- Currently, no protein exists that’s able to counter/inhibit glucosinolate — the organic compounds responsible for the bitter taste of many vegetables (ie. cauliflower). For this reason, we will be using CRISPR to genetically edit a protein able to do so.
- With this edited protein, we will target glucosinolate. Then, we will replace/modify/reduce/cut it to eradicate the bitter taste without affecting nutritious value, thus appealing to a wider range of people & encouraging healthy eating.
Our solution has the potential of 276.1 million USD in market value. You may check our financials here.
While this is a veritable method (as proved by the science), no company is working on GMO’s for bettering the taste. In a 2012 study, for example, some researchers found that moderate levels of sugar if it contains enough of a pungent compound called geranial, which is a volatile compound which is known to magnify the innate sweetness. Later, the chief researcher created tomatoes that lacked geranial and other fragrant molecules. People did not like them. If a tomato had average to high sugar levels but no volatiles, volunteers did not perceive it as sweet.
30 percent of people actually perceive most vegetables as bitter, and a sad 9 percent of American adults actually consume the recommended amount of vegetables per day — that means 290 million are not getting enough nutritive value. With tastier vegetables, there is the opportunity to augment the health of many — just by making vegetables tastier!