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FOOD SAFETY

Mars launches initiative to crowdsource solutions that solve aflatoxin
Monday, 30 October, 2017, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
San Francisco
Mars, Incorporated and collaborators launched an innovative food safety initiative to crowdsource solutions to solve aflatoxin, a food-borne toxin that is found in peanuts, spices and corn and can cause liver cancer and stunting.

A series of aflatoxin puzzles went online on Foldit, a platform that allows gamers to explore how amino acids are folded together to create proteins.

The puzzles provide gamers with a starting enzyme that has the potential to degrade aflatoxin. Gamers from around the world then battle it out to redesign and improve the enzyme so that it can neutralise aflatoxin. One in ten people eat unsafe foods, including those containing aflatoxin. This causes severe health, economic and social consequences.

Through innovation and collaboration, Mars’ goal is to combat the causes of unsafe food and improve global food security as part of its Sustainable in a Generation plan.

The Foldit aflatoxin launch was built on an uncommon collaboration of diverse parties, including Thermo Fisher Scientific, the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA), the University of California (UC), Davis, the University of Washington, Northeastern University and Mars, Incorporated.

Foldit allows anyone in the world with a computer and an imagination to play. In fact, some of the best Foldit gamers have had no scientific training. It taps into humans’ innate puzzle-solving abilities to solve complex scientific problems.

The top aflatoxin designs will be synthesised using the latest synthetic biology techniques and materials donated by Thermo Fisher Scientific. They will then be tested at the labs in UC Davis for their real world potential to eradicate aflatoxin.

All player designs will be available in the public domain, free of patents, in order to maximise the positive impact that this project could have on global food safety.

The Foldit game first released in May 2008. Since then it has had a number of notable successes. For example, in 2011, a dozen gamers took only 10 days to unravel the structure of an enzyme involved in a virus similar to HIV – a problem that had troubled scientists for decades.

Speaking at the launch event in San Francisco, Howard-Yana Shapiro, chief agricultural officer, Mars, Incorporated, said, “Four-and-a-half billion people in developing countries are chronically exposed to aflatoxin through their diet. This simply cannot continue.”

“We’re excited to bring together this partnership using the innovative Foldit computer gaming platform. I hope today kicks off the process to say game over to this silent but serious threat to food security,” he added.

The Foldit launch event marked World Food Day, the annual day designated to promote worldwide awareness of food security by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN).

Justin Siegel, faculty director, Innovation Institute for Food and Health, and assistant professor, chemistry, biochemistry and molecular medicine, UC Davis, said, “While aflatoxin has been a known issue for decades, advances in computation and biotechnology, coupled with the imagination of players from around the world, may finally result in a solution to this pressing problem.”

“No single organisation can tackle a problem this large, but the uncommon collaboration between the groups coming together here will enable us to not only discover a potential solution, but also translate it in a way that has real impact,” he added.

Helge Bastian, vice-president and general manager of synthetic biology, Thermo Fisher Scientific, said, “We are excited to tread this innovative path bringing together two leading corporations from different industries, prestigious universities, a crowd-sourcing computer game and the public to help build a safer food supply chain and address a major health issue.”

“Biology runs on a digital code, DNA - the software of life, that we can now design, write, modify and manufacture to engineer more effective, scalable solutions to real-world problems. This project has the potential to demonstrate the power of synthetic biology as a key discipline for a sustainable future,” he added.

David Baker, director, UW Institute of Protein Design (whose lab has been developing FoldIt along with the UW Centre for Game Science and Seth Cooper at Northeastern), said, “It has been fascinating to work with FoldIt players over the years and see how they have been able to come up with innovative solutions to challenging problems. I look forward to seeing the solutions FoldIt players come up with to the important aflatoxin neutralisation problem.”

Aflatoxin was first discovered in 1960, and it is estimated that it contaminates approximately a quarter of the food crops in the world.

The substance has been linked to stunting in children who consume it, and it is estimated to cause 90,000 cases of liver cancer each year.

The toxin disproportionately affects people in poorer countries with less rigorous crop testing. Approximately 16 billion ton of corn are lost worldwide annually due to aflatoxin contamination.

No current strategies to prevent aflatoxin infestation have been successful. Anyone keen to put their gaming skills to the test and join the initiative to eradicate aflatoxin can play the Foldit game.
 
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