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Wasabi: A Future Painkiller?

Byline: Aarathi

Do you love Japanese food, especially sushi? If so, you are familiar with wasabi -- a popular topping.

This green and pungent condiment is known to cause an intense burning sensation up one's nose, rather like mustard or the heat from chilies. These foods contain chemicals that interact with receptors in the human body and trigger warning signals.

Researchers have often wondered how these receptors function. Recently, a team from the University of California managed to capture detailed 3D images with new technology. Let's take a look.

TRPA1 or the Wasabi Receptor

As you know, the human body is made up of billions of nerve cells that transmit and receive information. A specific type of neuron called the sensory nerve cell, gives us the sensation of touch, taste, and more using proteins called receptor proteins.

These receptor proteins are located in the membrane of our sensory nerve cells, and usually take the form of pores. These pores are normally closed, but certain types of chemicals or other stimuli can cause them to open up. This sends a warning to the brain. In defense, our brains respond with a sting, burn, tears or cough as protection.

One such protein is the TRPA1 or the wasabi receptor which is tripped by food from the horseradish family as well as irritants in the air like the smell of onions, tear gas and even vehicle exhausts. Scientists were keen to study TRPA1 since it is also closely linked to the sensation of pain and inflammation. They knew that learning how to control and modify the receptor could lead to drugs for dulling the pain.

Thanks to a technique called Electron Cryo-microscopy, researchers have been able to create a 3D structural model of the TRPA1 receptor proteins -- almost to an atomic level! This will allow them to analyze how irritants react with the protein and the exact locations where the reactions take place. This could be of great importance to the pharmaceuticals industry.

Wasabi's role

Japanese dishes like sushi often contain raw fish. It is believed that wasabi was originally added since its leaves and stem could prevent bacterial growth and therefore reduce the risk of food poisoning. Wasabi is known as Japanese horseradish and is related closely to that family, which also includes cabbages and mustard.

Many of them contain a sulfurous chemical which sets off a strong reaction in TRPA1 receptors. No wonder, wasabi singes the nasal passage and sinuses!

Curiously, genuine wasabi which has a very short life is difficult to source and expensive. Most of what we eat is a mix of horseradish and mustard which have similar aburning' properties. Studies are also on to see how these stinging compounds in wasabi can be better harnessed to benefit us.

Meanwhile have a look at what the team from the University of California found.

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Title Annotation:Science
Author:Aarathi
Publication:Youngzine
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:May 17, 2015
Words:539
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