Kitchen Science - Physical Chemistry Seminar

Today, I took part in the extra credit Physical Chemistry Seminar by professor Andrew Pelling. When I first saw the title of the presentation, I assumed that I would encounter several concepts that I already knew about. However, I was in for a surprise!

I’m really glad to have the incentive to take part in these workshops. While I knew before that they existed, I never took part in them, but now that i participate in them, I get the chance to learn about so many fascinating things that intelligent and accomplished individuals achieve in their fields.

The motto for the researchers’ lab was “ask questions and apply rigour”, and indeed several of their projects did this. For example, the researchers really went in-depth in their investigation of in vitro vs. in vivo experimental conditions. In one experiment, they transformed a cell into a microtumor tissue and examined how it spreads in response to mechanical stretch. They found that the more stretch there is, the more malignant the tumor becomes as it can metastasise. This was very interesting because it has several implications for body parts that move frequently, such as the lungs when breathing (and how that relates to the malignancy of lung cancer). This brings out the limitations of studying the static in vitro cells.

This question of predicting in vivo behaviour based on in vitro observations is very complex, however, as professor Pelling explained. I remember learning in Biology that there are emergent properties with multicellular organisms, summarised best as “the sum is greater than the sum of its part”. Therefore, I found it particularly smart when professor Pelling mentioned that instead of opting to work with the complex in vivo conditions, they could study biology in artificial environment  instead. in other words, what can we learn about cells when making their environment as artificial as possible, instead of as realistic to human conditions as possible. This was similar to the falsification process that I learned in the scientific method, in which you can’t prove anything in science as that is too complex, but you can always disprove things. By growing cells in artificial  environments, like Lego figures, the researchers could make more certain conclusions about cell biology than by studying them in vivo.

The second part of the presentation was even more fascinating. Professor Pelling talked about several experiments that were done using food. The one that I found most interesting was using apples in constructive surgery, especially in making entire ears out of apples. Instead of using titanium and other artificial implants, the researchers explored the use of apple implantations in mice. They then investigated the immune response to these organic implants, and found out that, quite remarkably, there is an initial immune response, but the apple implants then become vascularised and integrated into the tissue. This can be seen in the picture below from professor Pelling’s slide. On the left is the initial immune response that’s observed, while on the right is an image after a few months showing how the implants have become vascularised into the body.

The researchers also performed another experiment with food, in which they used asparagus implants for spinal cord injury in mice, and were able to restore their walking capabilities. I wondered, of course, how come these organic materials were not digested in the body? I asked professor Pelling, and he mentioned that there weren’t any enzymes to digest them during this experiment, although they were also lucky to not have the implants be damaged extensively even after months.

Even though these projects are still at their initial phases, they do show amazing results, opening another avenue in constructive surgery. I have to say, I never thought about blending food and science in this way. These experiments take the health benefits of nutrition to a whole different level, with not just benefiting from food digestion, but also using them as organic implants. It was great to be exposed to this innovative way of thinking during this workshop!