Bet you can’t research just one

We’re standing in an unconventional laboratory in a campus research facility – the kind of place you’d never imagine anything unusual happens.

A technician lowers a sample of experimental material F07026 into a bath of heated triglyceride compounds.

Several molecular changes happen at once. A process called the Maillard reaction causes the sugars in F07026 to caramelize and darken. The triglycerides – also known as vegetable oil – displace the water in the material. The evicted water causes the bath to roil and spit.

As soon as the water has boiled away and the oil is calm again, the technician removes the samples, spreading them out to cool.

The experiment requires one more step to complete: the addition of sodium chloride crystals.

Salted potato chips, ready to eat.

The University of Guelph has had a frying lab since the 1980s. Those were heady days for potato research at the university, the pinnacle of which was the development of the Yukon Gold potato.

There’s a new quest now: the race is on to find an even greater tater.

What does this wonder spud of the future have that today’s tubers do not? For one thing, plant breeders are looking for a strain of potato that can be stored at cooler temperatures without its starches turning to sugar.

“The industry is always interested in knowing whether varieties will produce good quality chips when stored at a lower temperature because they can reduce sprout inhibitors and maintain dormancy longer, says Vanessa Currie, the research technician who has been frying sample batches for me.

Potato chips

One potato? Two potatoes? Actually, it’s one potato stored two different ways.

Currie laid out two portions of chips on the table. Both were made from F07026 potatoes, which had been grown, harvested sliced and fried exactly the same way. But the differences were stark: one pile was tawny and delicious, while the other dark brown stack tasted burnt and bitter.

The difference was in how they had been stored after harvest. The burnt chips came from spuds stored at 4 degrees, while the tastier snack had spent the winter at 10-12 degrees. In the cooler storage area, more starch turned to sugar, and that made all the difference.

“The Maillard reaction causes sugars to brown when frying,” said Alan Sullivan, a Guelph researcher and plant breeder who oversees potato research at the university. “The sugars combine with amino acids and cause a dark colour. In a lot of foods that’s fine. In fact, it’s what gives bread and seared meat their appealing colour.”

But in the deep fryer, too much sugar spoils the chip.

Chip producers want a spud that keeps its starch at 4-8 degrees: If they could store them at that temperature, they could reduce their use of sprout inhibitors and anti-pest chemicals. They could store the potatoes for longer, which would lead to major cost savings.

Cold storage is just one issue of concern for the Guelph researchers. Another desirable quality is rapid maturation (which would allow for a longer harvesting season and less storage time).

“Potato chip producers want product 12 months of the year,” Currie says. “There’s a significant part of our season in Ontario where they don’t have local potatoes. At that time they have to import them from the States at considerable expense.”

And of course, what’s good for the chip bag is different than what’s good for the mash or the fry. Breeders aren’t seeking a single superpotato, so much as they are a variety of new strains, each optimized for starch content, water content, robustness in the face of rain and drought, yield, disease and pesticide resistance, and many other factors.

Of course, private companies like Frito Lay have their own fry labs. But Sullivan thinks there is great value in having such research take place at a university.

“We are publicly funded, and everything that we do is public,” says Sullivan. “We produce reports that are disseminated to the industry – not just potato growers but on the table stock side there are chefs who want to know what the latest is. Loblaws is also interested.”

Breeding and cross breeding is a lengthy process with many factors – sometimes you get a potato that’s great in cold storage, but the yield is inadequate. In fact, species F07026 is one of hundreds that have been researched at the university. Hope, of course, sprouts eternal.

“Everybody is looking for the next Yukon Gold,” Sullivan says.

 

The Research Matters blog periodically publishes a range of stories centred around a specific theme. This story is part of a series on Food and Drink.

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Novel energy retrofit

Noreen Fagan | April 20, 2015

From the outside, the Victorian house at 31 Sussex Ave. in Toronto echoes the romanticism of a by-gone era but, once inside, the building transforms into an example of 21st century technologies. The 1879  red brick home is the stately research subject of Kim Pressnail, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto and Russell Richman, a professor of building science at Ryerson University. The University of Toronto-owned house is part of a low-energy retrofit project designed by Pressnail and his former student, Richman. The project explores new and innovative approaches to low-energy housing. In 2013, the Sussex house was retrofitted to incorporate two-nested thermal zones. The box-within-a-box consists of a core and perimeter zone, each with separate temperature controls. The core contains the most commonly-used spaces such as the kitchen, dining room, bathroom and master bedroom while the perimeter contains non-essential spaces such as the ballroom and spare bedrooms. The house uses radiant floor heating, and has triple-glazed windows and foam insulation.  But the key to saving energy lies in the ability to keep the two separately insulated thermal zones at different temperatures, which is what Pressnail and his team did for one year, beginning in December 2013. “We started out by heating the whole building, then gradually turned the heat down in the perimeter,” says Pressnail. In January, the permimeter's thermostat was set at 21 C. This allowed the researchers to see how the house would perform if all areas were heated.  In February and March, the perimeter air temperature was gradually reduced to 5oC. This provided the researchers with the opportunity to evaluate the response of the ornate plaster ceiling in the ballroom.  Generally, the perimeter areas can be turned down to 5oC or the average outdoor monthly temperature whichever is greater in order to achieve maximum energy savings during the winter season. But in April, as outdoor temperatures began to climb, the team allowed the perimeter temperature to increase to 10oC. “The goal was to save energy and increase the durability of the building – not degrade it,” says Pressnail. Tenants to move in The overall target was to save 75 per cent more energy compared to a home built to the 2012 Ontario Building Code (OBC) standards. In fact, the savings were 65 per cent, but if the perimeter had been operated in the maximum energy savings mode for the entire winter, they would have been closer to their goal, says Pressnail Although the initial research period has ended, the team will continue to record energy usage after new tenant – a visiting professor –  moves in April 1. “We are going to monitor how the occupant, who has been given the tools to save energy, will run the house. We are going to sit back and see what happens,” says Pressnail. While Pressnail keeps tabs on the Sussex house, his future projects will include either building thermal zones into a new home or retrofitting a modern building. Although research done at Sussex house shows that thermal zoning is environmentally friendly, Pressnail doubts people will be rushing to retrofit their houses anytime soon. At a time when natural gas and oil prices are low, the cost of retrofitting outweighs the energy savings. “The game-changer will be when people start paying the true cost of what the energy is doing to the environment,” he says.  

Bathroom talk

Sharon Oosthoek | April 16, 2015

Alex Mihailidis is known as "the talking bathroom guy" for his research into computerized devices designed to help those with dementia live more independently in their homes. The University of Toronto biomedical engineer created a bathroom with sensors to detect when someone standing idly at the sink has forgotten how to wash their hands. The sensors trigger a gentle voice that leads them through the process of turning on the tap and using the soap. And if they need extra help, there is a video screen in front of the sink to demonstrate proper technique. Mihailidis's bathroom adapts to the user so that if it's their habit to take 30 seconds to lather up, it will wait 30 seconds before prompting them to rinse. He has put his bathroom through a series of rigorous tests at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute's mock apartment, set up for studying assistive technologies in the home. People with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease living in long-term care homes in Toronto came in to help, showing that they are able to complete 25 per cent more of the required steps with the bathroom's prompts. Testing is crucial, says Mihailidis. Anywhere from 70 to 90 per cent of assistive devices are abandoned after a short period of use. Often it's because designers haven't deeply considered users' abilities, education and cultural or social backgrounds. Mihailidis is just wrapping up a research project to understand how these factors affect people's use of assistive technologies. The project relies on questionnaires, focus groups and interviews with caregivers. "Technology is the easy part" His resolve to get it right comes from a chance meeting years ago, with an engineer whose wife had Alzheimer’s disease. The man talked about how both he and his wife were embarrassed when he had to help her in the bathroom. He said he wished there was some device that could prompt his wife to use the toilet and sink, and give her back her dignity. "That kind of stuck with me," says Mihailidis. "Technology is the easy part. I mean it may take us a few years to perfect it. But what we really need to understand is how this technology affects people's lives." Mihailidis is also working on an interactive robot that can help people with dementia complete daily tasks such as making a cup of tea. Unlike the bathroom technology, which stays put, the robot can follow someone into the kitchen. Preliminary tests at Toronto Rehab show people with dementia are willing to interact with the robot and follow its prompts. Mihailidis's team — keenly aware that our population is aging ­— is encouraged by these results. "We are still in the research phase. These are complex technologies," says Mihailidis. "But our goal is have people use these technologies in their home to keep them living there independently as long a possible."

Healing gardens

Araina Bond | April 13, 2015

Nathan Perkins is dedicated to improving people’s health, one woodland path at a time. “Connecting with nature is incredibly important for health and wellbeing,” says the associate professor at the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development. His work is part of a body of research that demonstrates the powerful benefits that come from interacting with natural environments. In fact, studies show even a five-minute walk outdoors can lower blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Whether it’s as complex as a walk through a labyrinth or as simple as being able to move a chair to a place in the sun, research shows that a vital part of happiness and healing involves being in a healthy environment. While there are many studies that link nature – even something as simple as gardening or caring for a house plant – with good physical and mental health, Perkins has seen the effects first hand. He recalls keenly how a staff member at a health centre he helped design once told him: “What a huge difference this design makes for our clients. They are self-medicating on nature!” Perkins also works with schools and other institutions, and he’s designed projects on three continents. While each is different, they are all about finding the best ways to connect people with nature. His first major project was working with Guelph's Homewood Health Centre, a psychiatric hospital with programs for helping patients deal with addictions. “I was their designer in residence,” he says. “It was the highlight of my academic career.” Participatory design crucial to project Since the historic Homewood Health Centre houses a daycare where Perkins’ own children attended, the beautiful grounds are also an opportunity for stimulating interaction. “The clients got so much joy from watching the kids play in the gardens,” he says. “But the children also learned that people with addictions and mental health issues are just regular people.” Perkins explains that environments that inspire wellbeing are about more than just beautiful flowers. He believes in a process of participatory design from beginning to end. Patients and staff at Homewood, for example, were not only consulted throughout, but were also involved in long-term initiatives such as the herb garden and nature trail. “We all need a pilgrimage experience, a contemplative meditative space. It can be as simple as having chairs that people can move to create their own space,” he says, pointing out that in many institutions such as hospitals, chairs are bolted to the floor. Perkins has published several studies showing the benefits of involving staff, patients and even visitors in the design process. In designing institutions, he says, so much of the process is focused on long term cost-saving measures. “That’s how you end up with windows that don’t open,” he explains. “I’m a big believer in windows that patients can open. If you can’t have that, it could be something as inexpensive as putting a bird feeder outside the window.” Perkins notes that research shows small changes, such as having a hospital room with a view, can lead to shorter stays and less pain medication. In fact, he still treasures a letter sent by one former patient with addictions issues thanking him for the woodland trail he’d designed. She said it gave her hope and helped her heal. “I want to change the world,” says Perkins, and there is little doubt that he is on the right path.

Fix that leaky pipe

Sharon Oosthoek | April 9, 2015

There was a time when mould in your house — even so-called toxic black mould — was considered a mere aesthetic problem. "Until 1988, it was assumed if mould grew in a building, it was just ugly and not much of a health hazard," says David Miller, an expert in fungal toxins and allergens at Carleton University. "That assumption was absolutely wrong." Miller's research has been instrumental in changing our understanding of how mouldy homes harm our health, and in creating building codes and government policy to lessen those effects. Mould is a colloquial term for fungi that grow on things such as food and damp building materials. When it reaches a critical mass on the wall or a cold corner of a house, bits of the fuzzy stuff break off and become airborne or collect in dust. These fragments contain toxins and proteins, some of which are allergens, and all of which are small enough to travel deep into the lungs. People living or working in damp and mouldy buildings are at increased risk for asthma and respiratory problems such as colds and flu. Miller helped establish this link by honing techniques for assessing exposure in a way that is relevant to our health. In partnership with a large clinical lab, he works with blood samples from people already known to be allergic. This means their blood contains antibodies produced in response to various allergens, including those from mould in their homes and workplaces. Miller then uses these antibodies to "mine" for allergenic proteins produced by mould. He does this by extracting proteins from the most common species of fungi that grow on damp building materials. These are then purified on a special gel that also separates them. Next he spreads a dilution of the antibodies over the gel. "If there is a protein that the antibody recognizes, it will stop there and stick," he says. This tells him that the proteins from building samples come from moulds that have an adverse affect on our health. Don't forget to ventilate Such research is especially important in Canada, where children — whose developing immune systems make them vulnerable — spend about 90 per cent of their time indoors. That's a problem, given that between 10 and 30 per cent of homes in North America have moisture issues leading to mould growth. Part of the reason for this, says Miller, is we began to better insulate our homes in response to the 1970s' energy crisis. That's a good thing for reducing energy and greenhouse gas emissions. But for a long time we didn't pay enough attention to proper ventilation, giving mould a damp breeding ground. "A typical family of four emits two to seven kilograms of water every hour from things like cooking, cleaning, showers and faulty venting on clothes dryers," says Miller. "If it isn't vented properly, the water goes into the fabric of the building." Thanks to the work of Miller and others, we now better understand the risks. This has led not only to building codes requiring better ventilation, but also to public education campaigns encouraging people to repair leaky pipes, use kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans and make sure clothes dryers are properly vented. "Changing building codes requires evidence. Making public policy requires evidence," says Miller. "That's where I've tried to make my contribution."

Let the voting begin: ...

Sharon Oosthoek | April 8, 2015

Did you know the anti-blackout suit, which gave Allied pilots the advantage in the Second World War and later enabled space travel, was designed here in Ontario? Or how about evidence used in the canonization of the first Canadian-born saint, or the development of the colour motion picture process Technicolour? Yep, all advances made here in Ontario. On April 1, the Research Matters team launched a fun-online campaign at www.yourontarioresearch.ca to highlight the 50 game-changing discoveries made in this province’s universities over the last 100 years. The list includes well-known ones — insulin and the Group of Seven, anyone? It also includes discoveries with less profile, but just as much impact. Check out our top picks and see for yourself. As hard as it was for people here at Research Matters to narrow down the list to 50, the big challenge is now up to you to vote for your favourite discovery. Voting began April 1 and will continue all summer at fairs and public events as the game changers go on the road with the Research Matters’ Curiosity Shop. The public’s top-five favourites will be announced in the fall. Of course, measuring the impact of university research can be a personal matter — for some people it might be about how a certain discovery in medicine saved their mother's life. For others, it may be how it led to public policy that created new possibilities for peace and democracy. My personal favourite? As an enviro geek, my vote goes to techniques pioneered in Ontario for assessing water quality, contaminant transport, climate change and changing wildlife stocks in critically-important ecosystems. I'm proud of our home-grown discoveries and I hope you are too. Let this be an opportunity to delve deeper into research that matters to you. Be sure to keep up to date on twitter – you can find us at @OntarioResearch and use the hashtag #researchmatters. Check out the full list of game-changing discoveries at http://yourontarioresearch.ca/ and vote for your favourite.
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