Fall 2021

Natural Selections

Ahmad Alshannaq, left, and Dasol Choi demonstrate the use of D-Tox on corn inoculated with Aspergillus flavus in Jae-Hyuk Yu's lab in the Microbial Sciences Building. Photo by Michael P. King


Outside of agricultural and scientific circles, few people would hear the word “mycotoxin” and fully understand the reference. But they probably should. This menace just might be one of the biggest threats to our global food supply.

Although mycotoxins are garnering more attention today, not long ago they were severely understudied. As a senior at Seoul National University in 1985, Jae-Hyuk Yu MS’91, PhD’95 stumbled on mycotoxins in a microbiology class. But at the time no one in the microbiology department was investigating these fungal toxins, so he had to borrow books from a colleague in plant pathology.

“After I learned about this [toxin], especially aflatoxin, how big the problem is, how bad this toxin can be, I wanted to solve this problem,” Yu says. “That was my vision, starting from 1985.” Now a professor of bacteriology in the 22nd year of his faculty career, Yu believes he has finally come up with a solution.

Mycotoxins are toxic chemical compounds produced by certain species of molds (see Five Things Everyone Should Know about Mycotoxins in the spring 2019 issue of Grow). More than 300 different kinds of mycotoxins have been discovered, but only seven of them regularly contaminate food supplies.

The most problematic mycotoxins are aflatoxins, mainly produced by the molds Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus. “This toxin is the most potent carcinogen you can find in nature, 200 times more potent than benzo[a]pyrene, the main carcinogen in cigarette smoking,” Yu says. Aflatoxins, and mycotoxins in general, cause a wide variety of health issues, including suppressed immune responses, in utero developmental issues, genetic mutations, cancer, and even death. No humans or animals are immune to aflatoxin toxicity.

Mycotoxin contamination is unavoidable and a constant threat to almost all grain and food crops. Aflatoxins can contaminate around 25% of the global food supply, and this will only get worse as the planet warms. The best preventative measure against consuming these toxins has been to dispose of the contaminated food, including milk. Until now.

Yu and his team, which includes research scientist Ahmad Alshannaq PhD’18 and food science Ph.D. student Dasol Choi, have created a product called D-Tox that can safely treat various foods contaminated with aflatoxins and another mycotoxin called patulin. Applied in a clear liquid form, D-Tox breaks down these toxic chemicals into non-harmful components. When boiled in D-Tox, aflatoxins and patulin are dismantled in a matter of 15–30 minutes. Food can also be soaked in D-Tox for 1–2 days to effectively destroy the toxins. Since D-Tox is derived from edible fungal cultures, and because thorough testing has shown it to be completely nontoxic, Yu anticipates the product can be designated as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“Aflatoxin poses a significant risk to human health,” says Joan Bennett, a world-renowned aflatoxin expert and professor of plant pathology at Rutgers University. “Despite decades of research, there has been little progress on finding ways to mitigate aflatoxin contamination until D-Tox was developed.”

Yu’s hope is to mass-produce and distribute D-Tox worldwide in various easy-to-use forms, including a tablet, and he’s looking for partners and funders to work with his spin-off company, SkyAngel Bio. The product, he says, has the potential to protect more than 4.5 billion people from exposure to the harmful consequences of unmonitored levels of aflatoxins.

“I’m confident that this is at least one of the solutions that we can apply to reduce global aflatoxin contamination levels in human food,” Yu says, “so people can have a better and healthier life.”

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