With all the new medical advances happening now in technology to vaccines, there’s another medical technology worth mentioning: beet juice. That’s right, beet juice. Thanks to Iowa high schooler Dasia Taylor, it could be a new, natural way to prevent infection.
Taylor used beet juice to dye sutures, which could theoretically be used to detect infections. That means “turning beet red” may get a new meaning. It could someday reference the need for a trip to the hospital instead of embarrassment.
The Smithsonian Magazine reported that the 17-year-old student at Iowa City West High School in Iowa City, Iowa, began working on the project in October 2019, after her chemistry teacher shared information about state-wide science fairs with the class. As she developed her sutures, she nabbed awards at several regional science fairs, before advancing to the national stage. This January, Taylor was named one of 40 finalists in the Regeneron Science Talent Search, the country’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors.
The really cool part about how this whole invention came about is that Taylor had read about sutures coated with a conductive material that can sense the status of a wound by changes in electrical resistance, and relay that information to the smartphones or computers of patients and doctors. While these “smart” sutures could help in the United States, the expensive tool might be less applicable to people in developing countries, where internet access and mobile technology is sometimes lacking. And yet the need is there; on average, 11 percent of surgical wounds develop an infection in low- and middle-incoming countries, according to the World Health Organization, compared to between 2 and 4 percent of surgeries in the U.S.
In her research, Taylor came across a new type of stitches that can detect infections, which could help prevent dangerous post-surgery infections but would be expensive to implement in places where they’re most needed.
For Taylor, that issue stood out: She has long been immersed in questions of equity; she began studying restorative justice practices in middle school and now is the co-chair of the Iowa City Community School District’s equity committee.
“It was all this fancy technology just to do a couple of basic principles of science and identify basic principles of wound healing. And so I was like, ‘Okay, that’s cool and all, but the people who actually need it probably can’t afford it’.”
So she set out to create an alternative. And that’s where the beets come in.
“I found that beets changed color at the perfect pH point,” says Taylor. Bright red beet juice turns dark purple at a pH of nine. “That’s perfect for an infected wound. And so, I was like, ‘Oh, okay. So beets is where it’s at.’”
Next, Taylor had to find a suture thread that would hold onto the dye. She tested ten different materials, including standard suture thread, for how well they picked up and held the dye, whether the dye changed color when its pH changed, and how their thickness compared to standard suture thread. After her school transitioned to remote learning, she could spend four or five hours in the lab on an asynchronous lesson day, running experiments.
In January 2021, the Regeneron Talent Search, a prestigious, national, research-based competition for high schoolers, named Taylor’s project as one of its 40 finalists. And while it didn’t take home the grand prize of $250,000, it was named the Seaborg Award-winning entry (plus, Taylor will probably still get $25,000).
“My project is a novel suture additive that uses beet extract to assess…