Collaborating – a CoRE Issue

At first glance, there would seem to be little to connect a hi-tech nanotechnology-focused research centre with another concentrating on agri-foods, but look again.



Over the past three to four years, the MacDiarmid and the Riddet Institutes have worked together, sharing personnel and equipment to bring fundamental physical research on materials and structures into the biological world of what we grow and eat. Nanotechnology and nutrigenomics may sound futuristic, but there are already more than 600 food products and over 500 packaging applications using nanotech to provide a commercial edge over traditional materials.

It’s that edge on which Riddet and MacDiarmid researchers are working to provide some smarts for the New Zealand agricultural industry, while keeping an eye out for the international research collaborations and commercial partnerships that bring additional strengths to the Centres of Research Excellence.

Nanotechnology’s food applications will be big business. Some estimates place the worldwide value of the “nano-food” market as hitting $30 billion within the next few years. Even at a more pessimistic estimate of $8 billion, it is still a substantial market in which New Zealand could play a major role.

Wide-Ranging Applications

Potential applications in this area are wide-ranging, from on-farm support through to food production and packaging and storage. To highlight just a few:

  • on-farm real-time monitoring of soil moisture, temperature and pH values
  • nano-delivered genetic material for plant breeding
  • more efficient nutrient delivery systems built within novel foods
  • kitchenware and food handling products that incorporate antibacterial ingredients
  • interactive foods that change colour or taste when microwaved
  • tracking and identification of products along the food chain using nano-sensors

Some of these may sound familiar.  According to Dr Nigel Larsen, a Riddet Principal Investigator, “in terms of nanotechnology…much of the future is already here and is out there in the agri-foods chain”.

Which is not to say that there isn’t a lot more to research, even at the most fundamental levels of how nanotechnology can be applied and what the outcome might be. Some of Larsen’s research was for the FRST-funded Future Foods programme, which brought together technologists and social scientists to look at the social, cultural, economic and environmental issues associated with this burgeoning technology. The aim was to guide policy, strategy and decision-making, at both the scientific and societal levels.

Puzzling Over Proteins

“Cows have being doing [nanotechnology] for a few thousand years,” notes Larsen, explaining that cow’s milk is an example of a natural beverage which contains nano-micelles. The Riddet Institute, in conjunction with Dutch researchers, is looking at taking bovine nanotech a step further, utilizing the self-assembling properties of milk proteins. This holds promise for manipulation of protein structures to produce gels.

Why the interest? Larsen says that texture enhancements, such as gels, produce “nice structures [which] makes the food yummy to eat”. As well as better-tasting foods, nano-tech could be used to produce appetite control products, providing another tool to address the obesity epidemic. One research area is looking at nano-encapsulation of bioactive materials, which would be released once they hit the stomach. This would allow, for example, the materials involved in the satiety mechanism – which makes people feel full – to be applied directly into the digestive system.

Another protein of interest is that contained in egg white, which can produce nanotube-type structures. A PhD student working in this area is being co-supervised by Larsen and Professor Juliet Gerrard, an Associate Investigator for Riddet and a Principal Investigator for the MacDiarmid.  Student Moritz Lasse is based in Gerrard’s Biomolecular Interaction Centre, funded by a Riddet scholarship. The analysis of protein nanostructures falls within the ambit of MacDiarmid’s research theme covering the intersection of nanoscience and biology; how processing affects final digestibility and food safety is of interest to Riddet.

“There are big synergies in the egg project,” says Gerrard.

The analysis of the variety of protein aggregation states which egg white develops under different processing regimes has already thrown up one surprise – contrary to popular body-building myth, raw egg white is harder to digest than cooked. In addition, adding sugars or fats can change the digestibility of egg white. Understanding the basic processes involved could lead to the development of foods with calories levels controlled during manufacturing.

Working at the very small — millionths of a millimetre — can produce surprising results, as the physical and chemical behaviours of materials can change significantly compared to larger-scale properties. The very large surface area inherent in nano-particles can mean greater chemical reactivity, biological activity and catalytic behaviour. For example, a solid suspended in a liquid may typically be white or opaque; turn that solid into a suspension of nano-particles and it may appear red, or blue or green.

Changes in colour may not seem important, but they can have a major effect on response to foods. In addition, nano-based foods and food ingredients also have the potential to change food texture and taste. To take advantage of this, researchers need to understand how to use nano-emulsions and micelles to deliver encapsulated additives, ingredients and nutrients.

Concerns – Further Research Required

The changes in physical properties from the micro-scale to the nano-scale do raise significant concerns. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide have been used as food whiteners and brighteners for many years, typically in products such as white icing and mayonnaise. However, there are studies which indicate cell damage when these are used as nano-particulates. While such inorganic materials are typically non-active in the body, the very small sizes involved in nanotech applications could make the substances small enough to be bioavailable, leading Friends of the Earth and other organisations to call for a moratorium while further research is undertaken.

In order to best utilise this technology, it is vital to understand the implications and outcomes. Nanotech-based antibacterial cutting boards to reduce food contamination may sound like a good idea, but do we run the risk of producing ever-more resistant bacteria? Nano-silver packaging may result in increased shelf life for foods, but what happens to the metal as discarded material accumulates in landfills? Nano-emulsions may make for better uptake of vitamins and other nutrients, but what’s the potential for excessive dosage and toxicity?

These sorts of questions require broad-reaching research, looking at everything from the fundamental physical properties of proteins and polysaccharides through to manufacturing processes. That’s not something which any one research organisation can readily handle in New Zealand, as it requires interaction between an equally broad range of disciplines from biomaterials to chemistry, food science to physics.

The Centres of Research Excellence are designed to help bring those disciplines together. Although they focus on specific areas, there is definite benefit in interaction between them, particularly when it comes to shared resources such as equipment or personnel. In the case of MacDiarmid and Riddet, expensive optical instrumentation can be shared to meet the needs of individual research programmes as well as ones which common themes.

The sophisticated optical tweezers based at Massey University, for example, provide a means of manipulating molecules via laser beams, useful in a range of research programmes. Gerrard muses that the MacDiarmid-funded instrument can be as utilised for investigating the fine structure of yoghurt as of nanoparticles.

CoRE Principal Investigators are typically at the top of their field, with strong international networks as a result of having undertaken studies or positions overseas or themselves hosting international researchers and students at their institutions in New Zealand. Gerrard sees those interactions as forming the basis for much of the information collaborations that exist, where similar research interests and shared post-graduate students provide connections.

“The people across [CoREs] are talking,” she notes, adding that although commercial sensitivities can get in the way, ultimately it is the personal relationships and networking that get the work done.

“Most researchers would rather work together and put out a joint publication than issue an invoice.”

Gerrard appreciates the resource-rich environment that the CoREs offer, even though they can have very different funding models.

“The glorious thing about the MacDiarmid is the availability of the PhDs,” she says. This allows a certain degree of freedom of research direction generally not found in many more commercially-focused organisations.

More Innovation Needed

All this research comes at a cost, of course. If New Zealand wants to develop a strong image as an innovative producer and a country quick to see the potential in new technology – as it did a century ago with refrigerated shipping – both public and private concerns will have to step up to the mark.

In addressing the Riddet Institute’s Agri-Food Summit last year, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Professor Sir Peter Gluckman asked what impediments – beyond the eternal one of funding issues – prevented New Zealand research from moving ahead. He saw a major problem in the very small, highly competitive research field within New Zealand.

“We like to fight each other and compete rather than to collaborate and fight the rest of the world,” Gluckman added. He noted that the contestable funding mechanism has driven that intensity, and the inward focus has meant that New Zealand has not done well in promoting the country’s scientific capabilities abroad to bring major international research companies here.

“New Zealand is so small we have to tie these things together – make explicit some of these implicit connections,” says Gerrard. While the MacDiarmid-Riddet connection has been fairly ad hoc in the past, Gerrard sees the nanofood area as one which is ideally suited to a more formal, structured affiliation. Her own Biomolecular Interaction Centre, based at Canterbury, is already working with both CoREs, and the opportunities for overlap are increasingly obvious.

The CoREs and, more particularly, the push for more cooperative collaboration which they represent, indicates a move to counter those issues. Gluckman isn’t the only one who has been pleased to see more cooperative collaboration as a positive move. Riddet co-director Professor Paul Moughan has, in the past, called for a merger between the “agri-food” tertiary institutions of Massey and Lincoln Universities, sparked by a proposal to amalgamate Lincoln and AgResearch. While these proposals haven’t progressed, the power of collaborative research is certainly well recognised with the interactions between university and CRI researchers under the aegis of the CoREs.