DNA-SHAPES, a model for artificial taste

The interdisciplinary project DNA SHAPES, now aims at developing extremely rapid artificial tasting “machines” using DNA molecules as billions of small molecular sensors to mimic the human taste sense to an accuracy never before believed possible.

2018.10.10 | Camilla Mathiesen

Human sensory panel working. The human taste sense is complex and difficult to replicate.

 The human taste sense is complex and difficult to replicate thus the use of sensory panels is applied ubiquitously to provide unique and important information for food research and product development in the food industry. Whilst human sensory perception measurements are the gold standard in representing and analysis of the sensory characteristics of food products they are not suited in practical terms as online or at line rapid measures of a food qualities. The interdisciplinary project DNA SHAPES, now aims at developing extremely rapid artificial tasting “machines” using DNA molecules as billions of small molecular sensors to mimic the human taste sense to an accuracy never before believed possible.

 

The research aim of the DNA-SHAPES project is to obtain molecular based definitions of complex mixtures of ingredients in food and correlate these to the human senses. The aim is to develop an artificial tasting technology that conceptually resembles our natural sensory systems and thus translates the constituent sensory related elements in a specific food to digitized information in the form of DNA sequences. The project is funded by the Carlsberg Foundations, funding instrument ‘Semper Ardens’, which aims at visionary projects aimed at cross-scientific breakthroughs and high-risk/high-gain research where the applicants venture into new scientific territory, and thus far DNA-SHAPES is the only food related project in the series of granted projects, DNA-SHAPES started in 2017 and runs for three years.

Using new high speed DNA sequencing methods and computer assisted machine learning analysis, the project partners hope to be able to develop ‘artificial tasting machines’ that not only can help determine the sensory characteristics but also enable assessment of quality, authenticity, and contamination in food in a rapid manner for use in industrial production.

The aim is to mimic the natural sense of taste artificially by creating a library of billions of different molecular biosensors that specifically can bind to individual substances in a solution. By selecting the subclass of biosensors that can bind to the components in a particular food mixture and subsequently characterise them. Project leader Professor Jørgen Kjems from the Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Center (iNANO) at Aarhus University, and his colleagues indicate they can create a ‘picture’ of the ingredients - very similar to the principles applied by the human senses.

 

The vital role of the food matrix

While iNANO takes care of the molecular sensory technology in DNA-SHAPES, Professor Derek Victor Byrne and his science team Food Quality Perception & Society or FQS from the Department of Food Science at Aarhus University work with the human perception and taste sensory aspects of the project. Ultra precise quantitative descriptive sensory profiling is performed on complex food systems and used to bench mark and focus the development of the DNA-SHAPES analysis.

iFOOD Aarhus University Centre for Innovative Food Research has now also funded a scientific researcher position to bolster the Food Science potential in DNA-SHAPES for Niki Alexi from Greece, who works in Derek V. Byrne’s team with the aim of transferring the principles further into characterizing different kinds of foods and mature further initiatives in the area. Niki Alexi holds a Master’s degree in Sensory Science form Copenhagen University and a PhD from Aarhus University in ’Quality evaluation of emerging aquaculture species in EU, through sensory and instrumental techniques’. Niki Alexi has a strong background in biology and sensory analysis method development which she will use to great effect in DNA SHAPES. Niki Alexi has been working on the DNA-SHAPES project since May 2018 combining her knowledge of both the instrumental and sensory side of food science.

She here elaborates on how she sees the advantage of the approach used in the DNA-SHAPES project: 

-Normally, we measure one class of compounds with one method and another class of compounds with another, which means you basically decompose the product in order to profile it instrumentally. In this project, the ambition is to develop a method that can measure simultaneously all the components, thus giving us a more holistic view of the product. We not only combine different scientific disciplines, we also look at the whole food matrix. This is an important aspect, because the human sense of taste goes beyond the individual compounds in a product and rather is more related to the overall interaction of compounds with the senses. Thus, depending on the food matrix of any given product, what we perceive can be very different.

While the human taste sense is likely impossible to mimic 100 percent, getting a long way towards this goal in DNA-SHAPES will have big advantages:

Niki Alexi explains: - Whilst human sensory perception measurements are the gold standard in representing and analysis of the sensory characteristics of food products they are not suited in practical terms as online or at line rapid measures of food quality. Also, you cannot serve humans everything. For example, studies including products in some degree of decay due to different storage conditions may be unsuitable to test directly with human panels. Another issue can be the amount of products that you can test in one session, since human subjects experience fatigue. The DNA-SHAPES method then being developed not only is very fast but also not affected by limits such as the amount and type of products to be tested. Thus, it can work as a fast, efficient screening method for the industry in the quality evaluation of e.g. first materials, new ingredients and prototypes.

The project as funded by Carlsberg initially has worked with Beer as a suitable model product category for the development of the DNA SHAPES methodology specificity in relation to quality definition as it of course consists of a very complex mixture of tasting ingredients. Niki Alexi now plans to apply the method to different kinds of product categories as the project moves forward to broaden the scope and impact of DNA-SHAPES e.g. more protein rich food matrices with key applicability to e.g. the Danish food industry and beyond.

 

Developing a common language across research disciplines

The two teams in iNANO and AU FOOD are now in the process of connecting the data from sensory perception and DNA sequencing in order to create a map that relates the sensory quality characteristics to the DNA shapes fingerprints of the different samples examined, and Niki Alexi emphasizes the need to develop a common, cross disciplinary language throughout the work process.

-Communication is key, and the need to speak the same language is essential because we in fact are attempting to measure the same things.

Professor Derek V. Byrne says about the collaboration: -This is a truly interdisciplinary project, but in a novel way involving two very different scientific approaches in synergy towards a common goal. We are linking the senses to DNA based sensors, thus two very different fields. The perspective for the outcome of this project is vast: It can not only screen quality, authenticity, adulteration in food in details but also help improve our understanding of how we as human beings taste.

           Human sense of taste: 

Humans have about 5000 taste buds, each consisting of about 100 cells. Each cell expresses 50-100 different receptors, which upon binding of specific tastants initiate intracellular signaling cascades transducing into neuronal signaling to the brain. In essence, this means that the complex signals from approximately 500.000 cells are creating the tastes perceived in our brain.  Read more about the project here

The DNA-SHAPES team:

The participants in the DNA-SHAPES include:

•Derek Victor Byrne, Professor and Science Team Leader of Food Quality Perception & Society (FQS) at The Department of Food Science (FOOD), Aarhus University

 •Jørgen Kjems (main applicant), Professor and director, iNANO and Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics

 

iFOOD has financed a short term post doc position for Niki Alexi to investigate on possibilities for exploitation  of the DNA shapes concept on a broader range of foods with the aim of building new project initiatives, initially with interdisciplinary participation from AU FOOD and iNANO.

The DNA Shapes project is funded by:

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