Talking hydrogels with Elin Viksten at Extrakt.

Towards the end of 2019 I received the exciting news that a project of mine would be funded by Formas, the Swedish research council that supports work in the broadly defined area of sustainable development. Shortly after receiving the notice of funding, I was contacted by Elin Viksten, a reporter for the Swedish language online magazine Extrakt.se, which publishes popular science articles about new and ongoing research, including many projects supported by Formas.

In Sweden, the summary (Abstract) for every project awarded funding by the national research councils Formas and Vetenskapsr├ądet must by law be visible online. This is a matter of accountability, as it makes sure the general public can read about the projects they are funding, and can get in touch with the responsible researchers if they wish to. Elin had read the Abstract of my new Formas project when the notice of award was given, and she was intrigued by the work I was proposing. She contacted me in November and we spoke over the phone about my work. This was very exciting for me, as I had never been interviewed about my research before! You can find her full Swedish language article here at this link. What follows is a condensed English translation of the article, paraphrasing the original, including quotes from my own answers to Elin’s questions.

New protein can change the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.

They are ideal for moisturising and wound dressing, among other applications. Hydrogels have desirable properties for both the beauty and pharmaceutical industries. But their manufacturer requires harmful chemicals and non-renewable polymers. Now chemistry researcher Lauren McKee may have found a protein that can completely change production – in the pine forest.

Moisturising face masks, including sheet masks, have become a popular form of skin care. The moisturising component is a hydrogel material, which has also proved very useful in wound dressings. But most hydrogels are not produced in sustainable ways.

“Hydrogel effectively moisturises the skin as it contains 95 percent water. It’s a popular material, but I don’t think people generally know what it is and how it works. It can be daunting to look at the long list of ingredients on some cosmetics,” says Lauren McKee, researcher in biochemistry at the Royal Institute of Technology, KTH.

Toxic chemicals

The problem is that production today either involves non-renewable petroleum-based polymers or chemical modifications with hazardous chemicals. A hydrogel is always formed from a polymer that binds water in a three-dimensional structure that can also contain bio-active molecules with cosmetic or medical applications.

Often sodium polyacrylate, polyvinyl acetate, and similar petroleum-based polymers are used. However, because they are not sustainable, they are not ideal starting materials. So, carbohydrate biopolymers have begun to be used. The problem with using carbohydrates is that chemical modifications are required to get the 3D structures you are looking for.

“In this process, you get large amounts of chemical waste and the end product can also contain unwanted molecules. Borax, for example, is not an ingredient in the hydrogel, but is used in preparation. And it’s hard to get rid of all of these molecules once the hydrogel has formed,” says Lauren McKee.

Proteins discovered in the soil

This is where Lauren McKee’s discovery comes into play. She is a researcher in biochemistry and is mainly focused on natural microbial processes in the soil, such as the proteins and enzymes that affect biodegradation processes. It was also there, in the pine forest’s top soil, that she found entirely new proteins. They can be used to make hydrogel in a sustainable way. She accidentally discovered this function of the proteins in the laboratory and now she collaborates with researchers focused on materials research, quite far from her own research area.

“This is a whole new concept. Nobody has understood that these proteins can be used in this way. That is exciting to say the least.”

Produced by bacteria

What Lauren McKee found was proteins with the ability to cross-link natural carbohydrates to form the 3D structures that are so good at binding water – without the harmful chemicals used today. So far, she has explored two of the proteins and their ability to form hydrogels. The proteins are produced naturally by bacteria found in the soil, but they can also be produced easily in the laboratory.

“After that we mix a carbohydrate with the protein in a water solution – and that’s all. It sounds too easy, and it is a very simple process. The proteins and carbohydrates interact in the same way as they do in nature, what we call biomimicry.”

Must have long durability

The challenges ahead include, among other things, obtaining hydrogel with a sufficiently long shelf life. All components are naturally occurring molecules and for hydrogel to be used in cosmetic products, a minimum durability of 6-12 months is required.

“We need to make sure the gel is stable and resists microbial growth, but it is also important that it is allergy-proof. Since we are using proteins we have to be very careful about application to humans, so we need to test for every possible reaction.”

The few proteins of this type that have been observed previously have not shown this gel-forming property and Lauren McKee is the first to see this use. She believes that the soil is a very underrated environment for finding new enzymes and proteins.

“A lot of resources are invested in research on the human gut and its bacteria. But there is an equal or even greater species richness and as many enzymes in the soil.”

Translated from an original Swedish text by Elin Viksten of Extrakt.se

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