How to Unboil an Egg

Successfully 'unboiling' eggs is an exercise in untangling proteins. terren in Virginia [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

Perhaps there's hope for Humpty Dumpty after all: Scientists at the University of California Irvine have developed a way to "unboil" egg whites by untangling their proteins, reports Newsweek.

Why would scientists be interested in learning how to unboil an egg? It's not to alleviate culinary regret. Rather, the development has the potential to significantly reduce costs for any biotechnology process that requires the folding of proteins.

"Yes, we have invented a way to unboil a hen egg," said UCI biochemistry professor Gregory Weiss. "We start with egg whites boiled for 20 minutes at 90 degrees Celsius and return a key protein in the egg to working order."

The folding of proteins is an important practice in a number of disciplines, from industrial chemistry to medical science — where folded proteins are used for therapeutic treatments of diseases such as cancer. The problem is that the process of folding proteins is often like trying to prevent a pile of wiring from becoming knotted. Tangles form easily, and untangling the proteins can be a delicate, complicated mess.

A tangled knot of proteins is also what happens when eggs boil, which is why learning how to unboil an egg is so important for biotechnology research. Weiss and his team solved this problem by gently applying mechanical energy to pull the tangled proteins apart and give them a chance to refold.

"We start with egg whites and dissolve them in urea, so they go from a white solid to a liquid. Then we put them into a machine called a Vortex Fluid Device that spins the solution at a high speed, so the proteins are sort of gently pulled apart," Weiss explained.

The resultant "unboiled" egg is not exactly ready to be repurposed for cooking; the process requires that it is dissolved in other compounds. But one of the key proteins found in egg white is returned, neatly untangled. For the purposes of research at least, the egg has been unboiled.

A paper detailing the entire process has been published in the journal ChemBioChem, and Weiss and his team have filed a patent.

Now if only we could learn how to undo other things, like aging, time or the making of mistakes. For now, though, we'll just have to settle for the unboiling of eggs.