Greetings from the sunny Switzerland,
Sunny Switzerland, surprised! I found it hard to believe as well, particularly heard during the coffee break on a snowy day. Well apparently, the canton of Graubünden where I will work and to some extent live for the next three years has some of the best sunny weather in all Switzerland. Although I love winter and the snow had already made my day, it was nice to know that you can expect very good weather here too.
After two months living here, I can almost say that I am happily settled down. My apartment hunt was over a few weeks ago and I moved to my new place. Just a reminder, finding an apartment here could be as quite challenging as finding a job. As you might imagine, I was over the moon when I got it finally and near the work (CSEM, Landquart). The picture on the right is the view out of my window.
Speaking of work, I have recently visited CSEM headquarter in Neuchâtel and participated in the CEO, Mario EL-Khoury, meeting with all the new employees and Ph.D. students. We got the chance to discuss our projects with him shortly during lunch and then have a tour around the company. I was totally amazed by the scope of work, multidisciplinary practical approach and the company innovative vision to focus on technologies which make the difference. The meeting was fulfilling enough to make me say lucky me for having the chance of working here.
Now, it is time to tell you more about the most important part of my life these days, which is my Ph.D. project in the FoodSmartphone. Of course that we get to have all the other fun activities that you read in mine and my fellow ESRs blogs as well. let’s face it, as Ph.D. students, our projects are the biggest part of our lives. Don’t get me wrong, working on our projects is quite fun and exciting as well and this is something that I hope you came to realize after reading our blogs. As ESR 11, I have just started working on the development of aptamer-based electrochemical assays for aflatoxin detection on a smartphone two months ago.
The main goal of my project is to detect aflatoxins in food samples by an electrochemical device and then read out the results on a smartphone. As common for all research project, first I started the state of the art literature review on aflatoxin, aptamers, and aptamer-based biosensors to find out what has already been done in this field. I know that there are a lot of unknown terms to you in the former sentences and I will try my best to explain them in the next paragraphs.
First, let’s start with aflatoxins, our target of interest. Yes, you guessed it right!! Aflatoxins are toxins, they are natural toxins produced by certain molds (Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus), which can be found in improperly stored food such as grains, wheat, corn, nuts and so on. They can also be found in the milk, eggs, and meat of animals fed with the contaminated feedstock. These compounds are carcinogenic, associated with the development of liver cancer. The biggest problem is that they are very stable and when present cannot be completely controlled or eliminated, but they should be managed by strict food safety testing.
Because of their known carcinogenicity, many countries, including EU set strict limitations on the maximum level of aflatoxins in food and feed products. Since the current food safety process is not as efficient as it should be, we are going to develop the state of the art smartphone food analyzer for simple, fast and efficient detection of these dangerous contaminants in food. I am particularly going to target aflatoxin B1 in cereals and aflatoxin M1 in milk. Why these two among all 14 types of aflatoxins? Well, aflatoxin B1 is the most carcinogen and aflatoxin M1 is the metabolite of B1 found in the milk of cows fed the contaminated food, which would be a big health hazard for infants.
Now that you really feel the urgent need of testing your food for aflatoxins, you might want to know how our proposed smartphone food analyzer is going to help you do that. Well, I am going to develop an electrochemical aptamer ligand binding assay for this purpose. Since my very first step is the development of the aptamer ligand binding assay for aflatoxins, I am going to explain what an aptamer is and how it detects the target analyte in the sample. Aptamers (from the Latin aptus – fit, and Greek meros – part) are single-stranded DNA or RNA (ssDNA or ssRNA) molecules typically 15-60 nucleotide bases in length. They are called Nucleic acid antibodies and have the tendency to form helices and single-stranded loops leading to a unique 3D structure. Hence, they can bind targets with high selectivity and specificity.
The analyte detection principle is the same as antibodies, they bind because they fit their target. They are called nucleic acid antibodies and their performance is comparable to traditional antibodies. Although aptamers offer several advantages over their strong opponents (antibodies), including their small size, chemical production (no need to harm animals), versatile chemical modification, high stability and lack of immunogenicity, antibody immunoassays are far more common in research labs. The reason could be the aptamer patents and the reluctance to switch from well-established immunoassays to new and risky aptamer assays. Since some of the early patents are expired and there has been a growing number of research works on aptamers, the field is booming at the moment. Now that you know how awesome aptamers are, I promise you to write more about aflatoxin-aptamer binding assays in my next posts.
Apart from my Ph.D. project, I took the biomicrofluidic course at ETH which is a very interesting and pretty much challenging course. The course will help me to understand the basic principles of microfluidic and its various applications in biology and chemistry. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the time for language courses among the hustle and bustle of the Ph.D. life. Thus, I started a self-study plan for learning German with the help of language learning apps on my smartphone. It is not as efficient as a language course. Still, I am happy with the slow progress. Although I have been a busy bee, keeping up with my Ph.D. project and university during the week, luckily enough, I still could find the time to explore Switzerland on the weekends. The recent adventures include Caumasee Lake, Morges, Laussane, Allaman and Chinese festival in Bern.
Hopefully, you would hear more about the new adventures along with my Ph.D. project and my life as a Ph.D. student in Switzerland in my next posts.