Research Spotlight: Producing Healthier Foods
Innovating solutions for health is what motivates Christopher Elms, a junior undergraduate honors student who is pursuing a double major in biology and chemistry. Many drugs are created using plant products and used to treat existing diseases. What if we created foods that act as a preventive medicine, reducing the incidence of chronic diseases? Chronic upset in the colon ecosystem leads to inflammation that is implicated in autoimmune disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, colorectal cancer, obesity and diabetes. Elms’ research addresses dietary intervention at the level of functional food products, a novel approach that may enhance the colon’s ability to protect against pathogens and inflammatory diseases.
"As the field of medicine makes a push towards using more natural treatments, extraction of bioactive molecules from plant biomass will be a strong research focus in the future," says Dr. Jianfeng "Jay" Xu, Elms’ faculty mentor in the Arkansas Biosciences Institute. Their research aims to enrich whole-grain rice products and sugar beets with specialized, bioactive molecules. Rice bran, the hard outer layer of the rice grain, is a milling byproduct rich in vitamins and minerals and an excellent source of dietary fiber and protein. In both rice bran and beets, the cell wall structure may be modified by enzymes to release bioactive molecules during plant processing. Elms’ research may allow us to grow rice and beets with directly engineered enzymes functioning to release bioactive molecules post-harvest, which can then be incorporated into the consumer’s diet, or used directly for livestock feed, improving health of both humans and animals through reducing chronic inflammation.
Elms’ excellence in research has been recognized and supported by National Science Foundation funding through two Arkansas Advancing & Supporting Science, Engineering and Technology (ASSET) Initiative internships and an Arkansas Plant-Powered Production internship, and by a Student Undergraduate Research Fellowship award from the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. As he prepares to enter medical school Elms says, "The hands-on activity in Dr. Xu’s lab and weekly lab team meetings, have been invaluable in boosting my learning experience by applying my classroom learning. It has broadened my horizons by making me think outside of the box, look at the bigger picture, and analyze complex issues."