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Wine Detective Work Afoot in Chemist's Lab

Wine Detective Work Afoot in Chemist's Lab

Wine analysis research in the lab of Eric Anslyn can help prevent counterfeits and improve winemaking. Best of all, it's helping students learn the value of scientific research. As our Freshman Research Initiative celebrates its 10th anniversary, we visit the "SupraSensors" research stream.


In Prof. Anslyn's "Supramolecular Sensors" research stream of the Freshman Research Initiative, students use technology and chemistry to construct differential array sensors. These sensors can play a role in improving everything from homeland security to food science to clinical diagnostics, so students conduct research projects that put the sensors to use in many different ways. 

First, though, they develop and use the technique to distinguish between different varietals of wine. 

Like forensic investigators, the researchers can reveal the type of grape used, how long the grapes hung on the vine, and the year of harvest using the chemical sensors. As the animation above demonstrates, each well in a sensor's array has a different engineered molecule that interacts with the tannins and various chemical components of the wine to reveal clues about the wine itself. In addition to helping prevent counterfeits, the research could one day lead to the development of an "electronic tongue," which would give winemakers guidance about when to harvest or how long to age grapes to get the taste they're seeking. One small, cheap chip from this lab may eventually replace roomfuls of costly equipment and human wine tasters.

Brenden Herrera, a graduate student in chemistry, got his start in research in the Freshman Research Initiative lab of Dr. Anslyn.

In the meantime, students are using the process to learn and assist scientists in their pursuit of new knowledge.

"Wine is a good test bed because it's such a complex substance," Eric Anslyn explained back on the occasion of the Freshman Research Initiative's fifth anniversary. "And when you say that a particular sample you're given is a zinfandel, that tells you something about the genome of the grape. What we do in my graduate level research group is probe whether we can do the same kinds of tests for distinguishing disease states. Can we detect subtle differences in cell morphology, or in protein composition, that are the result of genetic changes brought on by various diseases? Can we pick up those changes just like we picked up subtle changes in tannins?"

Brenden Herrera, a graduate student in the department of chemistry, was previously one of Prof. Anslyn's undergraduate researchers and, in his current role, has helped freshmen navigate the chemistry of wine and more--the same way other grad students once helped him. 

What motivated you to apply to the Accelerated Research Initiative [an FRI-like program for upper-division students]?

I got an email from the student chapter of the American Chemical Society and at the very bottom it said something about the Accelerated Research Initiative. It was for juniors who haven't done research before, which was perfect for me. The email said that only three people had applied, so I had a pretty good chance of getting accepted. Since then, Dr. Anslyn, the principal investigator, and Dr. Eman Ghanem, the research educator, have helped me so much. I was so lucky.

Can you talk a little bit about your research during the FRI program? You spearheaded a project, correct?

We had a wine analysis team and a synthesis team. The goal of the analysis team was to differentiate different wine varietals based on tannin composition. This was done using a ternary sensor; the sensor is composed of a metal cation, an indicator and a peptide. Tannins bind to the sensor and displace the indicator and there is a resulting color change. Using ultraviolet-visible spectrophotometry, we can monitor that color change. So, we mix the different wines with several of our sensors and compile the data .... If we could find specific peptides that bind our tannins more effectively, we could increase the sensitivity of the sensors.... I ran so many different reactions trying to figure it out. Once I graduated, I began to realize that the research I do now is a lot like what I had been running over there.

Can you tell me about your time as an FRI mentor? How do you help students care about research?

It's analogous to the first chemistry lab. My main job was to make sure the students didn't hurt themselves. Besides that, I just answered questions and try to get the students into the habit of writing well. I try to to explain concepts in a way so that their meaning is obvious. I like to present cool case studies of scientists using techniques similar to ours to detect diseases. In the FRI class, students present a summary of research related to our field. We have to make it relevant. Otherwise, I'm just telling them what to do.

What did you most like about the FRI program?

In the Supramolecular Sensors Stream, students get to interact with Dr. Anslyn a lot. He'll lecture every Monday in the fall. He loves his stream. He thinks it's fascinating because we classify wines. There was this huge lawsuit that's part of the reason we ended up getting funding.

What was the lawsuit about?

There was a director in California who thought a certain wine tasted funny. He looked into it. A French company had sold grapes under a different name, as better grapes than they actually were, and a wine distributor sold wine made from them, knowing they weren't that grape. In the Supramolecular Sensors stream, we were analyzing a bunch of different wines and trying to classify them. There was one that was an outlier. It was showing that it was not pinot noir when it should have been. Because of the investigation, we know why it was an outlier. The class action suit said that a certain amount of money needs to go into science that is looking into characterizing wine, because this wouldn't have happened if there was an easy identification test.

What motivates you to pursue research now?

I get to collaborate with tons of different people. Right now we are working with somebody at Pennsylvania State University and UT biochemistry. My research could speed up reaction discovery, which ultimately could be applied to synthesizing a new pharmaceutical drug or cancer medicine.

Also, I want to do something no one else has ever done. I'm the first person to ever go to college in my family. If I got both of those degrees done, my mom would be pretty proud.

What are the most surprising things you've learned?

I've learned that it's completely up to me how much work I get done. No one else can change that. I can have bad days – maybe my reaction didn't work, or maybe I dropped a vial that had 15 milligrams of something I've been making for weeks. Those days happen, but ultimately everything is up to me. I'm responsible for how much I get done and how successful I am. It's okay to dream big, but if I don't work, the dreams are never going to come true.


Interview by Ellen Airhart. 

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Friday, 18 September 2020

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