By their nature, hypotheses are occasionally wrong. Sometimes what a researcher discovers is something entirely different from what he or she expected. In Vitaly Gruzdev’s case, what he uncovered as part of an interdisciplinary team effort to study the effect of laser pulses on food molecules turned out to be even better than what they thought.
Gruzdev, assistant research professor in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at MU, and his co-investigators — former MU Engineering faculty member Dmitry Korkin, MU Biochemistry faculty members Brian Mooney and Jay Thelen, and colleagues Jesper Havelund and Ian Max Moller from Aarhus University in Denmark — began studying how ultrashort laser pulses aimed at targeted peptides and proteins could modify said peptides and proteins in order to make certain foods tolerable to those with specific food allergies.
They expected that firing laser pulses would cause the peptides and proteins to break up into smaller molecules, changing their properties with the potential benefit of rendering them less harmful to people allergic to them.
As it turned out, the pulses actually caused the molecules to get bigger by attaching to other molecules. The end result was the same, but how they got there was different than expected, as outlined in the recent publication, “Controlled modification of biomolecules by ultrashort laser pulses in polar liquids,” published by the prestigious journal Scientific Reports.
“So instead of breaking into pieces, the laser pulses attached pieces to that molecule,” Gruzdev explained. “That was completely shocking for our team because we just didn’t expect it. We spent probably three years trying to understand what happens and why it happens. And during that experiment, when I did the laser treatment, each time it obtained predictable results, so it worked like a technology.”
And that’s where things get interesting. Because the laser treatment obtained predictable results under regular, everyday room conditions, there is potential for the method to be used as a technology to improve and lower costs for specific applications in medicine, pharmacology, biotechnology and more.
Basically, what Gruzdev hopes to prove in the near future is that this technology can modify molecules in a similar way to current chemically-based methods, but without the need for sterile conditions and specific, often expensive, equipment.
“Imagine if we can identify cancer cells and identify the specific proteins that support the functioning of those cancer cells. Shine laser pulses, modify [the molecules], and it’s done,” he said. “We wouldn’t need aggressive chemicals that make patients bald and sick. We would need to shine laser pulses, and that’s it.”
The next step toward making this a truly transcendent technology is discovering exactly how modification of those particles changes their properties.
“If we can show that in room conditions, all that stuff doesn’t interfere significantly with laser modification, and the modified molecules stop functioning the same way as before, then it’s a breakthrough discovery,” Gruzdev explained.
This project was funded by The Mizzou Advantage.