S1E6: Hi, Amatoxin!

Original Transcript:

Dear R,

Okay, Google. How do you say mushroom in Japanese? *Kinoko.*

In my time in Japan, I was nicknamed kinoko-san for my incessant talk about mushrooms. Stands to reason that I was working in Kawamura-sensei's mycotoxin lab. I remember I insisted on being placed in that lab as it was the only lab to offer something mycology related for my internship abroad. Kawamura-sensei happens to the head of the food science department. Considering his background, he is a very good fit. He created and patented a mycotoxin detection kit. Think of pregnancy tests, but applied to mycotoxins. Instead of urinating on a kit, you would stick the probe onto a food item and wait. A positive or negative result shows up to determine mycotoxin levels. This kit has been used in the Japanese industry. Before flying to Kagawa Prefecture, I tried my darn hardest to study up on mycotoxins. To be honest, I was intimidated by the lab focus. What have I gotten myself into?

I still have notes while working in the lab. I remember I took note of the different mycotoxins that I could be studying: Aflatoxin B1, Citrinin, Fumouisin B1, Ochratoxin A, and Zearaleonone. Pardon the butchered names. These are big molecules that are planar and polar. So, that means their the big bad wolves of the food contaminants. It is good to know that scientific research and human ingenuity has lowered the risk of consumers ingesting mycotoxins. The pervasiveness of mycotoxins, the toxic compounds created by some fungi as a secondary metabolite or defense mechanism, extends to food and beverage.  In toxicology, risk is defined as *risk = hazard x exposure* where hazard is the substance that can cause you harm and exposure is the time and dosage interacting with the substance. So, when mentioning we are privy to a world without much risk, I am saying we shouldn't worry as much because the likelihood of experiencing a hazardous compound like a mycotoxin is low from very low doses or little to no time interacting with the hazard. My notes after the list of mycotoxins dives into different lab procedures in using IAC-linked HPLC, an analytical lab equipment for separation of molecules, and ELISA, an assay that can detect the toxins. All in all, the first day in meeting Kawamura-sensei has met expectations. I, along with three other lab interns, were given loads of journals to read. Did I understand everything I was reading? No, but science is all about questioning. Question, I did.

There was one time that I was in the lab evaluating mycotoxins in ground coffee beans. Now, don't be alarmed. Improper storage of coffee beans can lead to the production of fungal colonies which can produce mycotoxins. Improper storage means your coffee beans are wet, stored in humid environment, and or stored in temperatures that lead to sweating or condensation in the container thereby allowing mold to grow. Obviously, moldy coffee beans are not going to be brewed. Just in case, tests are performed to detect if there are any mycotoxins spread around in the nearby vicinity. If so, the cargo is destroyed, usually burned. Drink coffee with a peace of mind. Now, if you're a distributor or company, you would like to have that security or assurance that your product is not a death note. That's where these validated tests come in to equation. Quicker and better tests means the cargo can be checked and sent or destroyed faster, instead of being held longer because a test is taking its time. Same thing with allergy testing. No food company wants to wait days for a test to show up results. They have to wait because what's worse is a food recall. If a quicker test is available in the market, then products ship out faster and your coffee beans are fresher. With that in mind, we tested with a control and variables on coffee beans to validate if the testing results are correct or if we, as lab interns, screwed up majorly. Thankfully, everything is in a controlled setting. I think my results were average. That's why I'm not developing food safety testing kits. Well, with more practice, I could be a pro.

For five weeks, I and fellow interns from around the world were living, working, and playing in area known as Takamatsu-shi which resides in Kagawa prefecture. Students from Thailand, Indonesia, China, United States, Brazil, and Turkey flew to partake on a food safety and technology journey. We were placed in labs with different specialties and were to attend lectures including Japanese language. If I had better neuroplasticity, I wouldn't have tried to brute force memorize katakana and hiragana. Woe is me. Through this cross cultural lens, I've been shaped and molded to appreciate the complexity and strangely, the simplicity of the food system. It's contradictory. The complexity of the food system is through all the pieces that fit together in agriculture and manufacturing. The simplicity is the break down of the chemical components and routine programs in production lines. Their extreme work ethic is on a different level, an intricately methodical and patient process. You may already know this. In an around the area, the nooks and crannies of the food industry is prevalent. Mini factories to large industrial complexes produce the different types of foods from Udon noodles to dumplings and from olive oil to soy sauce. Among the alleyways of small stalls and indoor farmer's markets, there are rice fields. I was interning in a more rural area than the city area of Takatmatsu. That gave me pause and thought about the United States and their set up. The food industry is not as commonly seen as restaurants or grocery stores. These facilities are located in industrial areas or hidden from site. If you live in a city, there's not much farmland, either. Unless you really look hard and do a Google search, you won't find many food manufacturing facilities openly advertising. Sometimes, Google searches don't show up all that many locations for co-packing. These big buildings and spaces with smells of baked goods or chocolate can waft into your homes if your live nearby. Sound of the work inside only gets louder as you walk closer and closer, into the doors and on the plant floors. I didn't appreciate the hidden places where food and its components as raw ingredients are made.

Living in another environment where mushrooms are enjoyed and a variety are on display like shiitake, enoki, matsutake, maitake, and so and so forth, is quite a nice change, especially, when I get to cook and eat them on a more regular basis. Saying "cho oishi-desu" (very delicious) isn't enough to justify the emphasis on how much I enjoyed the food. Likewise, saying arigato-gozaimatsu isn't enough gratitude for my experiences. The safety precautionary measures taken is on a whole new level. I recall a visit to Aijinomoto and putting on extensive layers of outer clothing to prevent hair from dropping onto food. I felt like a surgeon preparing for the exam room. There was even a specific person whose sole duty was to roll lint off of you as you enter the plant floor. Of course, entering requires you to go through a wind tunnel to make sure you are clean debris. Before entering that room which preceded the plant floor, you would wash your hands and use a Purell dispenser to activate the doors. This Purell dispenser is also seen in bathrooms. Did I mention the hair lab where if a customer sends back a product with hair in it, the lab tests for when the hair could have fallen into the food and a lab result with free samples and a full refund are sent to that customer? Oh, and there are X-ray machines to scan for anything that could have fallen on the product in addition to metal detectors.

Nonetheless, studying mycotoxins and understanding how to detect mycotoxins is important. To a larger extent, food safety is a top priority. It's grained into me as a student at UC Davis and for good reason. No one wants to hire a food scientist who puts people at a high risk of food safety issues. The lab opportunity to fine tune more attention to detail on mycotoxins is a rare opportunity. Fungi are like a double edged sword. On one edge, there's the holistic, medicinal, and nutritional value. On the other edge, there's mycotoxins. On the tip of the sword, there's psychedelics. There's still a lot to learn about mycotoxins. There's no cure or antidote at the moment. There's only testing kits to allow us to destroy product that have been contaminated. I could go on and try to explain to you about my limited understanding on mycotoxins, but I'm not. I'm humbled and honored to the point where I'm speechless at all the uncertainty. There's so much I don't know about fungi, but that curiosity and drive brings about the passion and love of the kingdom. Only Japan heightened that experience, especially, when I got a special lab tour of a mushroom lab by Watanabe-sensei. He usually doesn't host students in his lab, but I got a rare chance to see it as I was and still am regarded as Kinoko-san.

With Gratitude,
Brian Chau