Collaboration could spell “game over” for aflatoxin – the dangerous toxin found in peanuts, spices and corn
SAN FRANCISCO, Oct. 16, 2017 /PRNewswire/ — Mars, Incorporated and collaborators launched an innovative food safety initiative to crowdsource solutions to solve aflatoxin, a little known but dangerous foodborne toxin that can cause liver cancer and stunting. Today a series of aflatoxin puzzles will go 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 neutralize aflatoxin. One in ten people eat unsafe foods – like those containing aflatoxin – causing 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.
Today’s Foldit aflatoxin launch is built on an uncommon collaboration of diverse parties including Thermo Fisher Scientific, the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA), the University of California, 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; the platform taps into humans’ innate puzzle-solving abilities to solve complex scientific problems. The top aflatoxin designs will be synthesized 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 maximize the positive impact that this project could have on global food safety.
The Foldit game was 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, Dr Howard-Yana Shapiro, chief agricultural officer of Mars, Incorporated, said: “4.5 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.”
The Foldit launch event marks World Food Day, the annual day designated to promote worldwide awareness of food security by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Justin Siegel, faculty director of the Innovation Institute for Food and Health and assistant professor of chemistry, biochemistry and molecular medicine at the University of California, 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 organization 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 translate it in a way that has real impact.”
Helge Bastian, vice president and general manager of synthetic biology at 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.”
David Baker, director of the UW Institute of Protein Design whose lab has been developing FoldIt along with the UW Center 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 neutralization 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 tons 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 at https://fold.it.
Foldit is a competitive online puzzle game about protein folding. The platform was developed and is run by computer scientists around the world, spearheaded by the University of Washington and Northeastern University. It is a crowd-sourcing computer game that allows anyone in the world with a computer and imagination – but not necessarily any scientific training – to determine how amino acids are folded together to create proteins, the workhorses of our bodies. As proteins are part of so many diseases, they can also be part of the cure. Foldit provides tools to allow players to design brand new proteins by editing and “folding” their molecules differently. Foldit has already had very significant successes. Its gamers provided the crucial insights in 2011 to solve the structure of an enzyme critical for reproduction of the virus leading to AIDS in rhesus monkeys. With help from the game-players’ strategies, researchers revealed the enzymes’ structure within three weeks, which could assist in identifying targets for drugs to neutralize it.
About Mars, Incorporated
Mars is a family-owned business with more than a century of history making diverse products and offering services for people and the pets people love. With almost $35 billion in sales, the company is a global business that produces some of the world’s best-loved brands: M&M’s®, SNICKERS®, TWIX®, MILKY WAY®, DOVE®, PEDIGREE®, ROYAL CANIN®, WHISKAS®, EXTRA®, ORBIT®, 5™, SKITTLES®, UNCLE BEN’S®, MARS DRINKS and COCOAVIA®. Mars also provides veterinary health services that include BANFIELD® Pet Hospitals. Headquartered in McLean, VA, Mars operates in more than 80 countries. The Mars Five Principles – Quality, Responsibility, Mutuality, Efficiency and Freedom – inspire its more than 85,000 Associates to create value for all its partners and deliver growth they are proud of every day. For more information about Mars, please visit http://www.mars.com/global/sustainable-in-a-generation. Join us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and YouTube.
About the partners
- Thermo Fisher Scientific – Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. is the world leader in serving science, with revenues of more than $20 billion and approximately 65,000 employees globally. Its mission is to enable its customers to make the world healthier, cleaner and safer. The company helps customers accelerate life sciences research, improve patient diagnostics, deliver medicines to market and increase laboratory productivity.
- The Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA) – PACA is a collaboration which aims to protect crops, livestock, and people from the effects of aflatoxins. It will thereby contribute to improving food security, health, and trade across Africa. The African Union Commission provides leadership for PACA, and works with a cross-stakeholder steering committee towards PACA’s vision of an Africa free from the harmful effects of aflatoxins.
- The University of California, Davis – UC Davis is a public research university, one of the world’s leading cross-disciplinary research and teaching institutions. It is located in Davis, California. First opened in 1908, it has built a reputation for solving problems related to food, health, the environment and society.
- The University of Washington – The University of Washington is a public university in Seattle, Washington. It was established in 1861 and educates more than 54,000 students annually. The University of Washington has been ranked among the top 10 universities in the world.
- Northeastern University – Founded in 1898, Northeastern is a private research university in Boston, Massachusetts. It was founded in 1898 and caters for over 24,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students. The university has graduate campuses in Charlotte, North Carolina, Seattle, Silicon Valley, and Toronto.