Right or Left Hands Matter for Fats in Foods, Drugs and Computers: Guelph Study

November 21, 2013 - News Release

A discovery involving left- and right-handed fat molecules by University of Guelph food scientists may open the way to more healthful foods, new forms of drug delivery -- and even the next generation of computers and other consumer electronics.

Prof. Robert Lencki, Food Science, and research associate John Craven have shown for the first time that chirality, or handedness, plays a key role in forming solid lipid crystals in fats such as cocoa butter or margarine.

A paper about their discovery appeared late last month in Chemical Reviews, the world’s highest-ranked chemical journal. An online version appeared this past summer.

Biological molecules are chiral objects like human hands, which have the same parts with a different 3D arrangement in space (try to put a right-handed glove on your left hand).

Scientists have long known that proteins, sugars and nucleic acids are chiral. All helices spiral left or right, including protein helices and the double helix structure of DNA. For 3D self-assembly and functioning of these molecules, said Craven, “They’re all connecting through chiral handshakes.”

Now the Guelph researchers have shown important implications of handedness in fat molecules for structure formation.

“This chirality is key. This is a whole new field we’re looking at here,” Lencki said.

Chirality helps in functioning of fats, especially in lipid membranes surrounding every living cell. Those membrane lipids are chiral, and so are proteins embedded in the membranes as well as most of the compounds that pass through them.

They started with one kind of fat and then looked at collected data for others. Apart from a few exceptions, Lencki said, “We found it happens in all of them.”

Scientists might use their work to design lipids that the human body can use immediately instead of storing them as fat. Pharmaceutical companies might use chirality for better drug delivery across cell membranes.

Researchers are even looking at using lipids and nanostructures in electronics.

Biologists might also apply these findings to chirality in natural biomolecules in plants and animals.

Lencki said their work reflects U of G’s overall reputation for food expertise. “If you want to understand how food behaves, Guelph’s the place.”

“Guelph food science is certainly top in Canada and probably in the top two or three in North America from a research point of view.”

Craven will discuss this topic Nov. 27, 1:30 p.m., in Food Science 241.

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or lhunt@uoguelph.ca; or Kevin Gonsalves, Ext. 56982, or kgonsalves@uoguelph.ca.

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