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A less painful peanut for kids with allergies
Everybody loves peanuts, right? You’ll find them at the ballgame, on picnics, at the circus—even on airplanes. The crunchy nuggets can be popped in your mouth, one by one. Or they can be ground up into velvety smooth peanut butter and smeared on a sandwich.
But the truth is not everyone loves peanuts. In fact, a lot of people, including kids like you, are allergic to peanuts. Maybe you’ve got some friends who can’t eat them.
Food allergies are nothing to sneeze at. They’re much more serious than that. A person with peanut allergies who accidentally eats a peanut can become very sick—very fast. Even the tiniest little taste of peanut can spell trouble for kids with allergies. It can even mean being rushed to the hospital!
Scientists with the Agricultural Research Service are involved in several projects to help find peanuts that everyone can enjoy. In one project, researchers are looking for ways to make food products containing peanut butter safer for people with allergies.
Can you think of any foods that contain peanuts or peanut butter? What about snack crackers with peanut butter on them? Or chewy granola bars made with peanuts? Trail mix usually contains them, too.
Can you imagine what it would be like to not be able to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? That’s what it’s like for kids with peanut allergies.
Si-Yin Chung is one ARS researcher who’s discovered a great way to make peanuts safer for kids with peanuts allergies. But I bet you’ll never guess where he found a helping hand: in apples.
Apples and other fruits, like bananas, contain a natural protein that scientists call “PPO.” That’s short for polyphenoloxidase (say “polly-FEE-nol-OX-ee-dace”).
This special protein is the reason why apples and bananas turn brown when they’re sliced.
You can even try this experiment at home. With the help of an adult, cut an apple into several slices. Wait a few minutes. Do you see the surface of the apple slices turning brown?
By cutting the apple open, the PPO protein is exposed to the oxygen in the surrounding air. This causes a reaction to occur that’s kind of like what happens when metal on a car, or on a bike, turns to rust.
A chain reaction
Chung is taking advantage of this chemical reaction and using it on peanuts. When he adds the PPO from apples to ground-up peanuts, something interesting happens.
“Unusual molecules called tyrosines (say “TY-ro-seens”) start reacting,” he says. These molecules, like balls in a pinball machine, bounce around inside the peanut proteins and react with each other.
The tyrosine molecules also strike a specific group of peanut proteins known as allergens. That’s important since it’s these proteins that cause some people to have painful peanut allergies.
“The PPO changes the way the peanut proteins, or allergens, are built or structured,” says Chung.
And these changes, as a result, make peanuts less allergenic. This means they could be safer for kids with peanut allergies.
Chung says the next step is to test the peanuts treated with the PPO in animal laboratory tests. He and his colleagues will investigate whether or not the all-natural fruit PPO affects peanuts’ flavor at all.
Hopefully, that won’t be the case. After all, peanuts are a yummy snack that’s also good for us!
Looking for glue in a cow's stomach
If you take a drive through the country, you might see a herd of cows munching on grass and shrubs. Unlike us, they can eat and digest tough, fibrous plants. They can do this, in part, because of bacteria that live in their bellies.
Those bacteria, like some that live in your own stomach, are very helpful. They feed on chewed-up food once it makes its way down into the cow’s gut. This helps grind the plant chunks into even smaller pieces so the cows can get the most nutrients from their food.
Paul Weimer studies these bacteria. He’s a microbiologist with the Agricultural Research Service in Madison, Wis. His job is to study the tiny critters that hang out in cow bellies. Why? Because he wants to be sure the cows are healthy.
He also wants to learn about them because they help turn what the dairy cows eat into the nourishing milk that they produce—and that we drink!
Stick to it
One day Weimer was watching some bacteria under a microscope. They were turning plant chunks into food for themselves and the cow in which they lived. He was impressed with how tightly the bacteria stuck to the plant material, and that gave him an interesting idea: “If the bacteria are so good at sticking to plant materials, wouldn’t they be good at sticking to other similar things, like wood? Could they be used to make a wood glue?”
Do you know why these little bacteria are so good at attaching themselves to things?
Weimer explains, “They have an outer slime layer that allows them to cling to a surface. In my laboratory, they stick so tightly to plant material, or cellulose, I can’t get them off without destroying them.”
The bacteria must not want anyone else to get to their food.
Other bacteria are good clingers too. Some can stick to our teeth and cause cavities if we don’t brush them off. Eww! Gross!
It might sound really weird to you, but finding bacteria that can form a glue is a great discovery. It could help replace some of the smelly and expensive chemicals that are used right now to make wood products. That could help the environment.
Someday, maybe your kitchen table will be held together with tiny, helpful, harmless bacteria. Who knows?
What’s in a cow’s belly?
Rumen—The rumen is where food makes its first stop in the cow’s four-chambered stomach. Ruminococcus albus and other microbes in the rumen help break down plant fibers the cow has eaten. Unlike the animation, real-life cows regurgitate (vomit) food from the rumen to their mouths for re-chewing. “Feed typically spends 15 to 48 hours in the rumen before moving on,” notes Paul Weimer. Oh, and the rumen can hold 40 to 50 gallons (think milk jugs) of food!
Reticulum—The reticulum is a pouch-like chamber toward the front of the stomach that is somewhat open to the rumen. Resembling a honeycomb inside, the reticulum is also known as the “hardware stomach.” That’s because heavy objects that the cow has swallowed, such as fencing scraps, usually collect there.
Omasum—The omasum is the third of the four stomach chambers. The page-like tissues inside act as a kind of filter whose job includes absorbing water, potassium, and other substances from partly digested food that has been passed along by the reticulum.
Abomasum—The abomasum is the last of the four chambers. It is known as the “true stomach” because it works like that of a human or pig, for example. The environment of the abomasum is very acidic. This helps substances called enzymes break down proteins into important building blocks called amino acids.
Small intestine—The small intestine is a tube-like section of the digestive tract that connects the stomach to the large intestine. It’s the last stop where nutrients from digested food are taken up, or absorbed, by the cow’s body.
Large intestine—The large intestine is a part of the digestive tract that comes after the small intestine. Divided into three sections (the cecum, colon, and rectum), the large intestine is mainly responsible for removing water and forming feces. This waste material leaves the cow through an opening called the anus, and forms a “cow patty” upon hitting the ground.
Search for seeds
The American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture has released a new educational game called “The Great Seed Search.” The game gives kids the opportunity to experience the global nature of the agriculture industry.
Players enter coordinates and pilot a plane around the world collecting important seeds. Through challenges in the game, players learn about other cultures, geography and agricultural products. The game can be found at http://www.myamericanfarm.org/games/great_seed_search/.
This game was developed with guidance from The Asia Society and The Longview Foundation, who served as global literacy subject matter experts. Technical experts volunteered their time to support content development, research and review.
My American Farm is an educational game platform launched in 2011 to engage pre-K through fifth grade learners in the discovery of relevant agricultural issues. Today the free site offers 19 agriculturally themed games and more than 100 free educator resources such as lesson plans, activity sheets and comics.
The My American Farm educational resource is a special project of the Foundation. To take advantage of the free My American Farm resources, games and activities, visit www.myamericanfarm.org.