Can you unboil an egg?

It sounds like an impossible feat, but scientists have unscrambled the mystery of how to unboil a hen egg.

“Yes, we have invented a way to unboil a hen egg,” said Gregory Weiss, a professor from the University of California, Irvine in the US.

In 2015 Weiss and a team of researchers discovered the breakthrough technique of unboiling egg white in a high-speed machine called a vortex fluid device.

During the process of boiling an egg, the proteins unfold and refold into a more tangled, clumpy form. But the vortex fluid device allows proteins to refold into their original shape.

It is hoped the technique could have far-reaching implications in the $160 billion global biotechnology  industry, for example by dramatically reducing costs for cancer treatments and aiding food production.

Chemists had struggled to efficiently produce or recycle molecular proteins that could have a wide range of applications but which frequently “misfold” into structurally incorrect shapes, rendering them useless.

Other methods for successfully refolding proteins had been expensive and time-consuming, but the vortex fluid device only take a few minutes, speeding things up “by a factor of thousands”, said Weiss.

“Yes, we have invented a way to unboil a hen egg.” Copyright: Steve Zylius / UC Irvine

“It’s not so much that we’re interested in processing the eggs; that’s just demonstrating how powerful this process is.”

In the experiment, the research team boiled egg white for 20 minutes at 90 degrees Celsius until its proteins became tangled balls. Then they added a substance called urea that ate away at the egg white, liquefying the solid material. Next, the protein was put into the high-powered vortex fluid device which applied sheer stresses, forcing the proteins back into their proper, untangled shape.

In a follow up Tedx talk, Weiss said that all chemical reactions were reversible, even ones that you think are not.

Though the process would not unboil a whole egg in its shell if you changed your mind at breakfast, it is hoped to be applied to pharmaceuticals as an easier, cheaper and quicker way of refolding proteins, ultimately allowing more medicines to be available to more people.

Weiss’s team bagged an Ig Nobel Prize (a parody of the Nobel Prizes for science that “makes you laugh, then think,”) for their egg-unboiling method, presented by actual Nobel Prize winners. The prize was 10 trillion Zimbabwean dollars, the equivalent of about two US dollars.

Weiss said: “The team and I are thrilled by the recognition and the chance to tell people about the reversibility of transformations, including those taking place every day, that seem totally irreversible.”