Category Archives: Food and Health

Got high-quality milk?

IMG_0211Nothing is quite as satisfying as a tall, cold glass of milk, but odd flavors can be off-putting to consumers.

Researchers at Virginia Tech have traced what could be one indicator of contamination when milk’s flavor profile turns sour — too much iron in cows’ water sources.

A collaborative research effort involving the departments of dairy science, food science and technology, biochemistry, and civil and environmental engineering discovered that iron in bovine water sources was causing oxidized flavors, degraded milk proteins, and general poor stability of milk products. High iron content also decreased the cow’s ability to efficiently process some types of nutrients, which decreases production levels and makes the animals susceptible to a host of other health issues including mastitis and other bacterial infections.

“We found that when iron was present in the water or we added iron, we got a flavor profile that was less than ideal,” said Susan Duncan, professor of food science and technology and one of the lead authors in the iron study.

“While producers may not see the effects of iron in their milk quality immediately, over time this could pose a problem for producers who might notice a decline in quality and sales for no apparent reason.”

More than 80 percent of milk is water, and dairy cows drink about 100 liters of water each day to produce milk.

The amount of iron needed to contaminate milk was as low as 2 milligrams per liter.

“This study uncovered what could be a new baseline recommendation for producers who will likely want to test their water sources and collection and transportation equipment to ensure the iron levels are not too high from any of their sources,” Duncan said.

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Virginia Tech researcher discovers possible drug target for sleeping sickness

Zachary Mackey

Zachary Mackey in Biochemistry is doing research on how to cure sleeping sickness, which is carried by the tsetse fly.

Zachary Mackey is trying to deliver a stern wake-up call to the parasite that causes sleeping sickness, a neurological disease that threatens millions of lives in 36 countries in Africa, according to the World Health Organization.

Mackey identified a protein vital to the sleeping sickness parasite’s good health. Disrupting the protein with drugs could potentially make it impossible for the parasite to reproduce and survive, and thereby reducing its danger to human health.

The discovery suggests multiple ways to disrupt the protein’s function, said Mackey, an assistant professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, an affiliated faculty member in the Fralin Life Science Institute, and an affiliated researcher in Virginia Tech’s Vector-Borne Disease Research Group.

Sleeping sickness is caused when the vector-borne parasite Trypanosoma brucei crosses the blood-brain barrier during the late stage of infection.

The native African tsetse fly transmits the parasite through a painful bite, allowing it to spread through the body, causing fever, headache, and intense aches and pains.

When the parasite spreads to the brain, it causes swelling, slurred speech, confusion, and difficulty walking, followed by coma and eventually death.

Mackey thinks that overexpressing, depleting, or blocking the protein — known as proliferating cell nuclear antigen — represents three ways this protein could be targeted in the parasite, broadening the types of small molecules or drugs that can be developed to treat the disease.

Though a few drugs currently exist, they are either very expensive or have extremely powerful side effects due to their toxicity, according to Mackey, who is also an affiliated researcher in the Virginia Tech Center for Drug Discovery.

Mackey now investigates how altering the amount of protein kills the parasite. Once he better understands how this protein regulates the parasite’s life cycle, he can partner with chemists to synthesize small molecules that target the protein’s disruption.

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