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A tale of honey fraud, Sherlocking and magnets

Charlie Tran – Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery, Griffith University
Pasefika Magele – Sunnybank State High School
Housen Tarsha Kurdi – Sunnybank State High School
Daniel Labang – Sunnybank State High School

Honey can be found like liquid gold everywhere – from our culinary creations, in fragrant perfumes and even in health care products. However, there have been questions raised on whether the honey brought from our stores is authentic or a skilful replica. It has been shown that around 20% of the honey sold in Australia is impure.

Aside from the requirement for authentic, safe products to be sold to consumers, it is also important to be able to verify which country or region of Australia honey products have come from. Each jar of honey bears a distinct taste and texture, which echoes from the land it originates. Hence, a quest has emerged, to distinguish the true from the false and pierce this shroud of deceit.

Enter Associate Professor Horst Schirra, a modern-day molecular Sherlock Holmes, guiding investigations from the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery’s Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) facility. Assoc. Prof. Schirra does not use your typical magnifying glass, but rather magnetic fields, to observe the minuscule metabolic fingerprints of samples of various origins, including honey. His work allows him to find hidden truths, showing the disparities between pure and altered samples by uncovering their intricate tapestry of composition, patterns and components.

Much like Sherlock’s origins, Assoc. Prof. Schirra’s beginnings growing up on a farm was shaped by a humble biology teacher, who encouraged students’ questions and explorations, leaving Assoc. Prof. Schirra with an ignited spark of curiosity to solve the world’s puzzles. This propelled him through studies at Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe University, Germany, and later the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, Switzerland. Subsequently, Assoc. Prof. Schirra journeyed to Australia and for the last 22 years has been pursuing his scientific curiosity from The University of Queensland to Griffith University. His work has resonated with the National Measurement Institute and government advisories and he has held a directorship at the Metabolomics Society. These recognitions illustrate his influence outside the laboratory walls.

So far, his research has been used to solve the mysteries of honey fraud by exposing counterfeits. But the techniques he uses extend out beyond honey, as he holds the key to unlocking the mysteries behind a range of food products such as wine, fruit, and meat, and also medical samples and treatments. For example, he also delves into blood and urine samples to decode their stories and gain information that can be used to chart treatment paths for various conditions. This is far less invasive than current methods where the truth can be elusive. In another project, he worked with with CSIRO and DSM Nutritional Products on curbing methane emissions produced by cattle.

Assoc. Prof. Schirra’s aspirations are driven by curiosity and the want to know more. His main triumphs have been both transformative and challenging. Challenges, Assoc. Prof. Schirra attests to, can come from the struggles of obtaining funding for his research endeavours and the haunting desire to determine the entire picture when a few pieces are missing. Nonetheless, his parting wisdom for students interested in science is to follow your passion. Passion paves the way, science bestows immense freedom, and even after two decades of training, curiosity remains an unquenchable fire for Assoc. Prof. Schirra.

Guided by his past, Assoc. Prof. Schirra’s journey combines the endless drive of Sherlock Holmes to clarify mysteries, but also the passion fuelled by a biology teacher’s inspiration. Assoc. Prof. Schirra Horst’s journey is an exemplar on the influence of following our personal insatiable curiosity to propel us further.

Judges’ Feedback

“Great writing style and the Sherlock comparison kept it interesting. The beginning about the honey especially had me.”

“Thanks for a very engaging article, and well done explaining the researcher’s work for a general audience.”

“I really liked how you introduced the story with the honey mystery; it was very captivating and I wanted to read more!”