The National Center for Food Protection and Defense, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence, recently awarded $1 million to a group of researchers headed by Larry Wackett, Distinguished McKnight University Professor with the BioTechnology Institute. The grant was made for the development of a generalized method to test for food adulterants using enzymes. The Department of Homeland Security has a strong interest in protecting the public from possible attempts to contaminate food with toxic chemicals.

Wackett was instrumental in the recent development of an enzyme-based test kit for detecting melamine contamination in milk. He and fellow researcher Michael Sadowsky utilized an enzyme that altered the chemical structure of melamine and caused it to release detectable amounts of ammonia. The test kit was developed in collaboration with Bioo Scientific over a 6-month period in response to a call put out by the World Health Organization for a simple field test for melamine contamination.

Since the introduction of the melamine test kit, Wackett has continued to investigate other nitrogen-based potentially toxic manmade chemicals to find enzyme reactions that could help release colorimetrically detectable traces of ammonia. His efforts at enzyme detection came to the attention of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense in their search for a general method of testing for toxins that could potentially be introduced into the general food supply by terrorists.

“I think they were impressed that in six months we helped a prominent food testing company put a product on the market,” explained Wackett. “They thought it would be great if other tests like that could be developed to address potential terrorist threats.”

Wackett will be working with Sadowsky and Dr. Mani Subramanian, former global head of biotechnology for Dow Chemical Company currently directing the University of Iowa Center for Biocatalysis and Bioprocessing, on lead research to apply known and novel enzymes for the detection of toxins.

“Together, we probably have the best academic fermentation and enzyme purification facilities in the country,” said Wackett of the partnership between the researchers at the BioTechnology Institute and the University of Iowa Center for Biocatalysis and Bioprocessing. “It made sense to combine our efforts.”

-Tim Montgomery