Small particles of sugar open new markets for Ontario sweet corn

John Dutcher for Mirexus

Prof John Dutcher – photo by Martin Schwalbe

By Jeanine Moyer for AgInnovation Ontario

Guelph ON – Tiny sugar particles found in sweet corn could be Ontario agriculture’s latest hidden gem.

The miniscule “nanoparticles” were recently discovered by researchers at the University of Guelph and may offer many innovative applications.

The nanoparticles consist of a large number of sugar molecules tightly bonded together with remarkable properties such as extraordinarily high water retention, and low viscosity and exceptional stability in water – unlike any other natural particle ever discovered.

These nanoparticles have been around for centuries, since sweet corn varieties were developed in the 1700s, but have only recently been isolated and characterized by the University of Guelph team led by physics professor and Canada Research Chair Dr. John Dutcher.

Each of these naturally occurring sugar particles is just one thousandth of the diameter of a human hair, and research in Dutcher’s lab has shown that the special structure of the particles enables them to hold onto water, or moisture, better than any other natural or synthetic particle.

This property as well as other unique properties of the particles could lead to new applications in the cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, food, and nutraceuticals industries.

“Even though these particles are naturally present in sweet corn, we have only recently been able to isolate and characterize them because of new advances in, technology,” says Dutcher. “Despite our recent discovery, people have been eating these nanoparticles in sweet corn for centuries, which means they’re definitely safe to consume.”

Dutcher’s research team has been testing the properties of the particles and their endless applications.

“We’ve found the particles can be utilized as moisturizing agents in cosmetics creams, incorporated into natural sunscreens to extend SPF and used as a unique source of energy in sports drinks, just to name a few,” says Dutcher. “And there are so many more opportunities to use these natural particles to improve on and develop new products.”

With a proven product and countless applications already identified, Dutcher and his team have started their own company Mirexus to focus on market applications and commercialization of the nanoparticles.

Mirexus has trademarked the sweet corn particles as Phytospherix™ and have been marketing the particles as high-value ingredients to enhance existing products and create new ones in cosmetics, nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals.

“Phytospherix™ will give companies a competitive edge in the marketplace, offering enhanced properties and new product development opportunities,” says Dutcher, explaining that Mirexus is working collaboratively with companies on product development.

Mirexus is also continuing research, modifying the nanoparticles and exploring other applications.

Funding from the OMAFRA-University of Guelph’s Gryphon’s LAAIR (Leading to Accelerated Adoption of Innovative Research) program has enabled Dutcher to develop sales and marketing resources to support the commercialization of Phytospherix™.

The Gryphon’s LAAIR is supported through Growing Forward 2, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.

“The Gryphon’s LAAIR funding has been absolutely critical in accelerating the commercialization of this technology and in securing a recent $4.5 M investment for Mirexus. With this boost, it is just the beginning for these tiny sugar particles,” says Dutcher. “Ontario sweet corn is no longer just a commodity. It will become the basis for new high tech products that will take agriculture to the next level.”