UNB Post-Doctoral Fellow Tanzina Huq is Breaking Ground With a New Use for Mushrooms

Author: Engineering Alumni Office

Posted on Feb 8, 2018

Category: Research Spotlight

Who knew that one of UNB’s engineering labs was filled with mushrooms?

Yes, there is indeed a fungi-filled space in the Dr. Jack McKenzie Limerick Pulp and Paper Centre on the Fredericton campus, and Dr. Tanzina Huq, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Chemical Engineering at UNB, is surrounded by them daily. Huq is jointly sponsored by UNB (under the supervision of Dr. Yonghao Ni) and Mitacs, and she’s also the Chief Technology Officer at Chinova Bioworks, a Fredericton-based startup that has pioneered the use of natural mushroom chitosan fiber as an all-natural preservative ingredient in clean label products including food, beverages and cosmetics.

Huq, a biomaterials and polymer scientist, is originally from Bangladesh and completed an undergraduate and master’s degree in applied chemistry at the University of Dhaka. It was there that she began studying polymers with an interest in protecting the environment. “There is so much plastic waste in Bangladesh,” Tanzina states, “It’s destroying our planet. I got interested in how to replace plastics with natural fibres, and then began working in nanotechnology, and then microbiology.”

Huq came to Canada on scholarship to do her PhD in Quebec in food microbiology and nanocomposites.  Upon completion of her degree, she arrived in Fredericton in 2016 with her husband (also at UNB) and joined Natasha Dhayagude and David Brown to form Chinova. The trio was concerned with how to reduce food and beverage waste and at the same time make the switch from synthetic to healthier, natural preservatives. They found the answer in chitosan from mushrooms.

The cell walls of mushrooms are stiffened by a molecule called chitin, unlike cellulose found in plants. Chitosan, a derivative of chitin, has been found to protect ingredients prone to oxidation and against bacteria, yeast, and molds. Until now, the chitosan commonly used as a preservative in food and cosmetics has come from crustaceans such as shrimp and crab. But Chinova is the first to use mushroom chitosan. It’s cleaner than that from crustaceans, and adds healthy, natural fibre to foods and beverages. It also eliminates or reduces the need for harmful synthetic preservatives.

The mushrooms are sourced locally from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick farms and arrive at Tanzina’s lab on the Fredericton campus, where they are turned into products for commercial clients in the food and beverage industry. Chinova has filed their first patent and is collecting data and gathering results this year, after which they expect to be able to eventually expand to the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries as well.

The company has been growing, recently adding two more positions. Tanzina expects further growth as they begin to use nano-particles of chitosan and the whole process can be accelerated. “Being a startup with little funding, we needed help to find the right lab space and equipment, and so this position with UNB has been wonderful for both me and the company. We’re excited about where we can go from here.”

Tanzina also says she loves Fredericton, and has become a permanent Canadian resident. “I think we’ll stay here a long time. It’s a great place to grow and find the partners and support we need. If I can help reduce global waste and create healthier products all from a lab in Fredericton, I’ll be happy.”