How unboiling an egg can help cancer researchers

Chemistry major Stephan Kudlacek and professor Greg Weiss have developed a way of unboiling a hen egg.
Chemistry major Stephan Kudlacek and professor Greg Weiss have developed a way of unboiling a hen egg.
Steve Zylius/UC Irvine Communications

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Boiling an egg is simple, but unboiling an egg?

That takes some serious science.

Researchers at UC Irvine say they’ve managed to do just that using a newly developed technique that involves untangling the egg’s proteins.

It could also lead to cheaper ways of studying cancer, according to UC Irvine researcher Greg Weiss.

When you boil an egg the proteins in the whites unfold and extend out, but that's where the mess starts, said Weiss.

"The proteins get very tangled up with each other sort of like fishing line that gets tangled up, they get completely stuck together."

Tangled egg proteins are fine if you want a snack, but if you want to return the egg to its liquid state you need to undo that process.

Weiss and his colleagues developed a way to do that by soaking the egg whites in a synthetic version of urea.

Then the researchers put the concoction in a high speed-spinning machine called a vortex fluidic device. There, the proteins are subjected to sheer forces.

"This stretches the proteins and allows them to snap back together and every so often they snap back to their correct shape," Weiss explained.

He says after a few minutes, key parts of the egg whites are back to their gooey liquid selves.

Of course you wouldn't want to eat the egg after that since only some of the whites have been untangled and there is urea in the mix now.

But Weiss added, eggs aren't really the point. They're just a way to demonstrate the technology.

"Specifically what I would like to apply this to are proteins associated with cancer."

Weiss, who studies cancer as well, noted that at the moment it is quite expensive to mass produce cancer proteins for research.

There are cheaper methods but those procedures can render the proteins tangled and messy, not un-like the proteins of a boiled egg.

Weiss noted that it's hard to get useful data from these gnarled cancer proteins but by untangling them with his new method, they can be examined and documented.

He noted there are other methods of doing this now, but they take days rather than minutes and use much more water in the process.

This new technique could offer a cheaper and more efficient solution.

This story has been updated to fix a grammatical error.