Food Allergens, Parkinson’s Disease, and Student Insight: Chemistry This Week

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chemical structure of ovalbumin

This is the chemical structure of ovalbumin, an allergenic protein in eggs. Image Courtesy of NIH.

This week’s research in the chemical sciences delves into the detection of food allergens, advances in Parkinson’s disease treatment and a student’s discernment of chemical phenomena.

Finding Allergens With Mass Spectrometry

Allergens are a part of modern life, and detecting food allergens can be a matter of grave importance.

Many foods will have more than one allergen component. For instance, an individual peanut reportedly contains 13 allergen components, while a single egg contains seven allergen components.

To those of us who do not suffer with food allergies, it may be surprising to learn that at least 2/3 of all food allergens are proteins.

The proteins come from eight food groups: shellfish, eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, soy, tree nuts and wheat. Within each category, there may be fifteen individual allergens per food item.

Presently, we use an antibody assay, or enzyme assay, to detect allergens, but this process is time-consuming and error prone. However in a new methodology (developed at James Cook University, Australia), workers report detecting the bio-signatures for allergens in less than half the time required in an antibody assay.

Each allergen has a discerning characteristic; it has a unique skeletal arrangement and ‘weight.’ For example, in any egg, you will normally find ovalbumin which is a protein and potential allergen.

The methodology workers at James Cook University, Australia developed used a technique called Mass Spectral analysis. The molecule depicted (above) possesses ‘weight’ or characteristic molecular weight. When subjected to the technique, the molecule will fragment into pieces characteristic for itself. Each fragment from the molecule has a characteristic weight, as well.

The methodology would standardize the characterization of potential allergens.

Parkinson’s Symptoms and Neurochemistry

Parkinson’s disease strikes approximately 3% of the elderly; it is a neurological disorder that leads to death.  According to neuroscientists, potential causes for Parkinson’s are similar to those found in extreme forms of dementia.

In developments originating from Wayne State University, Michigan and New York University, N.Y., researchers developed a potential treatment and ‘neuro-protectant’ for Parkinson’s disease.

The workers used current dopamine medications to find treatment candidates. Their evaluation for potential medicines stem from treating laboratory rats in a chemically-induced Parkinson’s state.

L-dopaquinone

This is the chemical structure of L-dopaquinone. Image courtesy of NIH.

The treatment molecules are in the initial stages of clinical evaluation.

Education: Quantum Mechanical Chemistry Software and Student Insight

The use of computational techniques and the Personal Computer help the student to understand quantum mechanics and its role in explaining chemical phenomena.

Using quantum mechanics to explain chemical phenomena is more than the filling of the periodic table in a specific order of rote memorization—it lends itself to an insightful understanding of chemical phenomena.

However, a common refrain from the instructor is that intuition is NOT acceptable. Chemistry is an experimental science.

The student marches into the lab with the rejoinder: all phenomena SEEM acceptable.

And there lies the problem; not all students learn at the same pace nor with the same depth of understanding, so an unsatisfactory grade is the result.

All-too-often, the road to chemical maturity for the student is pocked with an incomplete understanding.

To the student’s rescue comes the personal computer employing Quantum Chemical software packages. To paraphrase the late Nobel laureate, John Pople, quantum mechanical chemical packages are designed to give insight and discernment.

A question that can be answered with simple laboratory experimentation, “why does one gram of solid-ice occupy more volume than the same weight of water?,” becomes very difficult for an undergraduate when you add pollutants such as gasoline or  pesticides. By understanding the physical-chemical behavior of contaminated ice, the potential for environmental clean-up becomes clearer.

Students can step through the chemistry involved first, by possessing a prior knowledge of pure water’s physical characteristics. Then, the student can use a quantum chemical software package to understand the characteristics of contaminated water. Studying the physical characteristics between pure water/ice and contaminated water/ice gives the student (and eventual scientist) the insight needed to understand physical outcomes.

Mainstream quantum chemical packages such as GAMESS, Gaussian, Q-Chem and SPARTAN are used to understand the chemical behavior; the software packages are available from the web. (GAMESS is available free of charge for all students.)

Chemistry: Taking It In

Although our intuition of daily expectations tell us to proceed logically, the realities of chemical phenomena proceed at a pace that few easily understand. From identifying allergens with mass spectrometry to learning more about Parkinson’s Disease and  improving learning for students, our understanding of chemistry is in a constant state of development.

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