By adding a special protein, researchers say, they can make your ice cream cone drip-free. (Yue Wu/The Washington Post)

Scientists claim to have found a solution for dripping ice cream cones: a protein that keeps the treat from melting.

The protein, called BslA (Bacterial Surface Layer A), is already found in other foods, like the Japanese breakfast food of fermented soybeans called natto. When the bacteria Bacillus subtilis grows into colonies called biofilms, the colony protects itself by forming a coating of BslA, which forms a kind of "bacterial raincoat."

Cait MacPhee of the University of Edinburgh, who's leading the research on the protein's potential uses, realized that the physical properties of this bacterial raincoat might make it perfect for ice cream.

The protein, she observed, could coat air bubbles and oil droplets in the same way it coated the bacterial colonies, as well as coating solid surfaces.

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"Bring those three together and you’ve got ice-cream," MacPhee told The Post in an e-mail, "an oil + water (or sugar syrup) mixture, plus air bubbles, plus ice crystals (the solid). So if we add the protein it can protect all three, and keep the mixture stable."

In addition to keeping the ice cream more stable -- which means it doesn't easily melt in the traditional sense, though it does get warm (and therefore less delicious) over time -- the protein also keeps ice crystals from forming on the dessert. That keeps the texture nice and smooth, unlike traditional ice cream that gets hard and frosty in the freezer.

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MacPhee and her colleagues have already published two papers on the way the protein works -- one focusing on its biology and the other on its physics -- and she says they've already tested the ice cream application in the lab. With a patent pending, however, her team is keeping a tight lid on the data they collected.

So we'll have to wait and see just how effective this anti-melting agent really is.

If the protein is successful, MacPhee and her colleagues believe it could improve ice cream all up and down the supply chain. It would take less energy to make the product, since it didn't have to be as cold, and less energy to transport it for the same reason. Once in the hands of a consumer, the ice cream would theoretically stay nice and creamy long past when other products would have freezer burn, and of course the experience of eating it on a hot day would be greatly improved -- and much less sticky.

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