FRI program works to counteract wine fraud

Elizabeth Huang

A group of student researchers works as "wine detectives" with chemistry professor Eric Anslyn to decide whether a bottle of wine is truly wine or rather a counterfeit trying to take its place.

In Anslyn’s research group, Supramolecular Sensors, students use differential array sensors to test for tannins, a substance naturally produced by grapes, in the wine.

“The sensors are composed of a metal, an indicator and a peptide,” said Brenden Herrera, chemistry graduate student and mentor for the group. “When a sample of wine is added to the complex, molecules in the wine called tannins displace the indicator, and a color change is observed. By using a variety of metal-indicator-peptide combinations, we get a ‘fingerprint’ for each wine. The fingerprints are what allows us to differentiate the different wines.”

Wine was chosen as the test solution because its quality is something many people discuss and care about, Anslyn said. The sensors the Freshman Research Initiative team is developing could potentially be used to compare what wine tasters say about wine and what the sensors detect since they were designed to mimic the way the tongue tastes and the nose smells, Anslyn said. 

“Wine seemed like a great class of beverage in which to test our technique because humans socialize and spend a lot of time talking about wine,” Anslyn said. 

Economics sophomore Joy Youwakim said the research can help people get what they actually pay for.

“I think it’s wonderful that there are students working to detect wine’s accountability so people aren’t ripped off,” Youwakim said.

The program teaches students basic lab skills, as well as skills specific to the research students are focusing on. Anslyn’s lab is a great learning experience for students, because they are involved in the entire development process from making the sensors all the way to testing the arrays, said Diana Zamora-Olivares, assistant professor in the College of Natural Sciences and research educator for the team. 

Zamora-Olivares said the goal in Anslyn’s research group is to improve existing technologies for chemical detection and classification so the technology can be used for other areas.

“The methodology itself is very general and can be applied to any type of chemical classification,” Zamora-Olivares said. “By simply changing the set of chemical sensors we use, we can adapt our array system to other fields such as quality control, forensics, healthcare, and even national defense.”