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2011 Faculty & Staff News

Longwood chemistry professor doing research prompted by his love of hot, spicy food

July 27, 2011

Chris Gulgas

A Longwood University chemistry professor is conducting research that might make it easier to detect the amount of the most important ingredient in the hot sauce he likes to use on his food.

Dr. Chris Gulgas, a lifelong lover of hot, spicy food, is researching a new detection method for capsaicin, a molecule that makes hot peppers hot and is found in pain desensitizers. He and some undergraduates are trying to design a luminescent sensor molecule for detecting capsaicinoids - a family of molecules that are structurally related - in solution. They are working on bonding two luminescent ions called lanthanides with capsaicin and capsaicin-like molecules. The luminescent molecules increase their light production when bonded with capsaicin, which Gulgas hopes will act as a sensor and reveal how much capsaicin is in a liquid, solution or mixture such as hot sauce.

"Students and I are designing and synthesizing new molecules from scratch," said Gulgas, assistant professor of chemistry, who started the project in March 2010. "This hasn't been done before for this molecule. No one is working on a sensor for capsaicinoids but me. My goal is to be able to take a drop from bottle of hot sauce, which is a complicated mixture, and mix it with my sensor molecule and, using an instrument called a fluorometer, be able to say accurately how much capsaicin is in that sample. This result can be accomplished now, through a process called Liquid Chromotography, which is the industry standard and is widely used, but it's time-consuming and costly.

"We're studying changes in light given off by lanthanide ions. I'm using two lanthanides - europium and terbium - that produce light as the signal for detecting capsaicinoids. I want the lanthanide to interact with capsaicin. In this research, I'm testing only synthetic capsaicinoids, which are easier to work with and in this case are made from vanilla. If we were using naturally occurring capsaicinoids, it might irritate your skin, or the vapors from an open bottle would be uncomfortable. We started with one sensor I made, and the students and I have made three different versions of sensor molecules.

"My background is in developing sensor molecules. I have made sensors for small molecules or ions, and I have previously created a new sensor for fluoride ions, but this is something different. No one has tried to detect capsaicin with a sensor molecule or sensor complex, so I set out to synthesize a new one using a lanthanide. I was already familiar with capsaicin because of my love of spicy foods, and one day I got the idea that lanthanides would bond well with capsaicin and decided to try it. We have synthesized a series of molecular sensors and studied their response to a model capsaicinoid, achieving quite encouraging preliminary results.

"The way we were approaching this project is exactly the same as what is done in drug development, even though we're not developing a drug. What we're interested in is structure-activity relationships. The structure (of the molecule) defines how something behaves. We're looking at how we can measure capsaicin more accurately and more cheaply."

The research could possibly have applications in quality control, though that's not why Gulgas is doing this project. "If successful, we would replace Liquid Chromotography as a measuring tool for capsaicin," he said.

Gulgas has always liked spicy food, and he grows his own peppers. He keeps two bottles of Tabasco sauce on his desk. "I use this sauce for lunch at least three times a week," he said. "I use it on a lot of foods, including eggs, grits, and Mexican food such as rice and beans."

This fall he will be assisted in his research by Dan Kelley and Cheryl Peck, both senior chemistry majors. Kelley helped with the research in spring 2011. Other students with whom he has worked on this project include Rob Bressin and Wyatt Colvin, both of whom graduated in May 2011, and Rachel Enga, a rising senior. Bressin's senior honors thesis, under Gulgas, was "Increasing Binding Strength for Capsaicin Analogs through Alteration of Lanthanide Chelates." Bressin is enrolled in a Ph.D. program in chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh, and Colvin is a research assistant with Luna Innovations in Charlottesville.

The study has been the focus of presentations by Gulgas and Bressin, Colvin and Enga at various conferences, including an oral presentation, "Eu (III) and Tb (III) chelates show a strong luminescence response to capsaicinoids in solution," at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in March 2011 in Anaheim, Cal. At that meeting, there was a poster presentation by Bressin and Gulgas and another by Colvin, Enga and Gulgas. Also, Gulgas and Colvin gave an oral presentation, "Synthesis of lanthanide chelates for detection of capsaicin in solution," at the ACS Central Region meeting in June 2010 in Dayton, Ohio. Gulgas has given on-campus presentations of the research in the Blackwell and Chichester Colloquium lecture series.

A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Gulgas, who teaches organic chemistry, joined the Longwood faculty in fall 2008. He is a graduate of the College of Wooster and has a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati. His wife, Brandi George Gulgas, is scheduling coordinator in Longwood's office of Conferences & Scheduling.