Protein found on sheep’s back

University of Otago researchers have won $1 million in government funding for a two-year project that will extract food-safe digestible protein from natural wool. 

Sheep wool is 95% protein with no fat or carbohydrates. This makes it an extremely rich protein source but until now it has been difficult to access, says Associate Professor George Dias.

“Wool-derived protein (WDP) offers an exciting opportunity to add value to New Zealand’s low-valued medium to coarse wool clip,” he says. “WDP can be produced at less than $10 a kilogram, making it extremely cost competitive relative to the gold standard whey protein isolate at $25/kg.” 

Associate Professor Dias will seek to take WDP’s potential to another level by undertaking proof-of-concept science that will attest to WDP’s ability to be used and marketed as a premium-earning functional ingredient (less than $50/kg).

This proposal is based on intriguing data from WDP preliminary studies including that WDP is uniquely rich in the amino acid cysteine and has high levels of selenium – both key components in glutathione, a critical agent in cellular antioxidant processes. “WDP may therefore aid the attenuation of oxidative stress in diseased – for example, type 2 diabetes – and stressed (intensively exercised) muscle,” he says. 

“Through a series of coordinated in-vitro analyses, in-vivo studies and a pilot human trial we will develop a fundamental understanding of the bio-functionality of WDP and determine its potential antioxidant effects and metabolic interactions. 

“Our focus on premium, rather than commodity, proteins will add enormous value to New Zealand’s wool resource.” 

Associate Professor Dias says food processing and nutritional ingredient companies will have ready access to this new, premium protein to develop innovative, high-value exports. 

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