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On the Search for the Sustainable Foods of the Future

Researcher Mie Thorborg Pedersen has been deeply involved with jellyfish in recent years. Now she turns the microscope away from the slimy jellyfish and instead wants to investigate whether so-called liquid crystals, which have revolutionized screen technology, can contribute to shaping the future of foods

By Sebastian Wittrock, , 11/13/2023

They have almost become a part of her identity, she says.


Since Mie Thorborg Pedersen wrote her thesis in Physics, she has worked  with jellyfish. Her Ph.D. also ended up focusing on the wobbly creatures and how to turn them into food, such as crispy chips. And she has lost count of how many days she has stood in ice-cold water up to her knees in Kerteminde Fjord, close to where she lives, to catch jellyfish for her research.


But now it's over. Almost, at least.


Mie Thorborg Pedersen recently defended her Ph.D. in gastrophysics at the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Southern Denmark and has just received an international postdoc grant from the Villum Foundation. The idea behind it is that she should move away from her previous research area. Now she will instead examine the chemical building blocks, the proteins, that food is made of. More specifically, she will look at liquid crystals in food.


"I will look at something called amyloid fibrils. These are proteins that arrange themselves in twisted strands and can form liquid crystals, a kind of intermediate state between liquid and solid form," explains Mie Thorborg Pedersen.


"Liquid crystals have been enormously significant in other areas. For example, they are used in many computer, TV, and phone screens. LCD stands for liquid crystal display. But as far as I know, there has been very little research on the significance of liquid crystals as a state for food."


The future of gastronomy

Much is still unknown in the field, but Mie Thorborg Pedersen thinks that liquid crystals could become part of the future of gastronomy.


"Many biological structures can form liquid crystals. For example, cell membranes are a form of liquid crystal that is significant for the properties of cell membranes. Another example is when a spider spins its very strong and elastic silk thread; the thread is spun from a protein material that is a liquid crystal, which is significant for the unique properties of the silk thread," she says.


"As food is a biological material, it is possible that liquid crystals play a role in the properties of food. But we don't know that yet."


The ultimate goal for Mie Thorborg Pedersen is to develop sustainable foods that taste really good.


"There is a broad consensus that if we are to eat more sustainably, we should rely more on plant proteins and move away from animal proteins. But the problem here is often that it can be difficult to achieve the same mouthfeel. Perhaps amyloid fibrils can play a role there," Mie Thorborg Pedersen explains.


However, she also wants to challenge the claim that sustainable food necessarily has to be plant-based.

"Sustainable food could also involve utilizing some of the resources that are not currently being utilized. It could, for example, be jellyfish."


Jellyfish proteins

The postdoc grant involves a stay of one and a half years at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, where there is a research unit working specifically on amyloid fibrils and liquid crystals. They primarily use milk proteins to shape them. The remaining one and a half years she will spend at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense.


And she won't completely say goodbye to jellyfish, after all.


"When I am a bit further into the project, I will also explore jellyfish proteins as amyloid structures and their ability to form liquid crystals. Jellyfish have a very characteristic texture and some special biological structures, so it is not unthinkable that they can also be used to form liquid crystals or are already in a state like a liquid crystal," says Mie Thorborg Pedersen.


Instead of experimenting with the preparation of whole jellyfish, she will zoom in even further on the microscope and examine the smallest constituents of jellyfish.


"It can potentially open up many new exciting possibilities for sustainable food in the future."


Editing was completed: 13.11.2023