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What do Sir Roger Moore and a deep-sea fish have in common?

Sir Roger Moore (whose James Bond once quipped that "Where there’s an ocean, a marine biologist is never on holiday", in "The Spy Who Loved Me") has another claim to fame: according to one of his friends, he may have inspired the choc-ice-on-a-stick Magnum ice-cream.

But Sir Roger may share the distinction of inspiring ice-cream innovation with a deep-sea fish – though in this case, it’s Solero lollies in the UK rather than Magnums. As part of my research for a writing project, I’ve finally managed to get to the bottom of this biotechnology story.

WHSA Ocean Pout
Ocean pout at Woods Hole science aquarium
Image by By Vejlenser (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The fish in question is an eelpout. There are around 300 species in the eelpout family (Zoarcidae) – and as an aside, I’m proud to have helped to add one to their number from exploring deep-sea vents in the Cayman Trough.

But back to our ice-cream story: the ocean pout, Zoarces americanus, lives along the Atlantic coast of North America from Labrador to Delaware, down to a depth of more than 300 metres and in waters colder than 10 degrees C (and sometimes much colder).

As an adaptation to chilly waters, the ocean pout produces antifreeze proteins, which attach to any ice crystals in the fish’s blood and curb their growth, preventing them from damaging cells.

Unilever scientists managed to synthesise this “ice structuring protein", by transferring the gene for the protein from the fish into yeast, which can then produce it in industrial quantities. None of the remnants of yeast cells make it into any ice cream, and the protein that they produce is identical to its original form found in nature.

Ice Structuring Protein helps to tackle a couple of problems for an ice-cream manufacturer. If ice cream partially thaws and refreezes, for example during shipping, its ice crystals inevitably get larger, which makes its texture less appealing. With potentially smaller ice crystals in the first place, it may also be possible to make smooth ice cream using less fat. And only tiny amounts of Ice Structuring Protein are needed for their effect.

Ocean pout, Newfoundland, Canada
Ocean pout, Newfoundland, Canada
Image by Derek Keats (https://www.flickr.com/photos/dkeats/5532424100/)
[CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Since developing this eelpout-inspired innovation, Unilever has received regulatory approval for Ice Structuring Protein as an ingredient in places including the US (2003), Australia & New Zealand (2006), and the European Union (2009).

In the UK, any ice creams containing the protein must be labeled with “Ice Structuring Protein" in their ingredients list. Which got me wondering which ones have it - and the answer is two types of Solero lollies (“Exotic Explosion" and “Berry Explosion") on sale in the UK, at the moment.

Next time I’m tempted by the tinkling chimes of our local ice-cream van (which incidentally makes its rounds in all weathers here, even blustery days in November), I’ll perhaps be spoilt for choice between those inspired by Sir Roger and those inspired by a deep-sea fish.

Jon Copley, June 2017