Mars Device to Ease Adverse Wine Effects

Mars Device to Ease Adverse Wine Effects

When UC Berkeley Professor Richard Mathies began prototyping the Mars Organic Analyzer (MOA), he never expected it would help millions of wine drinkers that suffer adverse reactions from consuming red wine.

Funded through NASA, Mathies set out to develop an instrument to detect life on Mars. His MOA prototype analyzes Martian soil samples to find a broad class of molecules like organic sugars, amines and amino acids, which are key components for detecting life on the planet.

Many of you are probably asking how this all ties into wine and why you would care. Consisting of many minor components, wine consists of many amino-based compounds including Tyramines and Histamines, which can trigger a wide range of symptoms from nausea, headaches and hot flashes to respiratory disorders and high-blood pressure for many wine drinkers. If you are one of many individuals that suffer adverse symptoms, help may be on the horizon.

Until now, those that suffer are probably better off not drinking at all, or at the very least should take a few precautionary steps to reduce the aftermath. Besides reducing intake and drinking plenty of water, cut back on foods rich in Tyramines such as aged cheeses, grapes, figs, pineapple, plums, dried fruits, avocados, shrimp sauces, processed & cured meats (e.g. prosciutto, salami and pastrami), soy & teriyaki sauces, nuts, and chocolate. Tannins may sometimes cause a release of serotonin, which can cause headaches for people that typically suffer migraines, so selecting less tannic wines like French Burgundy, Dolcetto, Barbera, Pinot Noir, Beaujolais and Tempranillo also reduce symptoms.Amino Acids

Above all, you should always opt for premium wines, which are much less likely to have impurities in them.

So why don’t we simply look for a wine that is free of amino-based compounds? Like sulfite-free wine, it does not exist.

The MOA Glass DiskThe MOA glass disk
Photo: J. Scherer, Mathies Lab
Mathies, which also suffers adverse reactions from consuming wine, discovered that the MOA would be the perfect instrument to detect amino-based compounds in wine. During his experiment in collaboration with Kent Rosenblum, the proprietor of Rosenblum Cellars discovered that Amino-based compounds naturally turn up during malolactic fermentation, which is a secondary fermentation process used to produce red wine.The malolactic fermentation process kindles Tyramines and histamines, which typically cause adverse reactions for many wine drinkers.”Merlots seem to be particularly high, [in Tyramine components]” Mathies says, “but at this point we haven’t done a sufficiently conclusive

study to figure out whether some varietals, or wines from specific wineries, are consistently more tyramine-laden than others”. The good news is that once Mathies organizes additional funding, he intends to continue his research in this area.

So does this mean that individuals that suffer reactions from drinking wine are out of luck? Simply put, either drink wine and suffer the consequences, or simply stop drinking wine? Well, not exactly.

Although the MOA prototype is only used in the laboratory now, Mathies hopes to create a handheld home device for consumer use, which will come in handy to test foods and beverages at home or while dining at a restaurant. For many, “Having a quick testing kit could ultimately save lives”, suggests Mathies. So when will it be available? Mathies predicts an analyzer of this type should be available in a couple of years from a new company called Microchip Biotechnologies Inc. located in Dublin, California.

As for the Mars MOA, NASA has transitioned the analyzer into the flight build process so they are now starting to build hardware for the various engineering and flight versions. For more information about the continuing development of this project, visit the site.

~ Pamela Heiligenthal


About the Author:

Editor and co-founder of, Pamela is a sommelier and former restaurant manager and wine buyer with Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), Court of Master Sommeliers & Center for Wine Origins certification. She has contributed to or been quoted by various publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Sommelier Journal, Vegetarian Times, VIV Magazine, UC-Berkeley Astrobiology News, The Washington Post, the Associated Press, NPR and USA Today. True to her roots, she seeks varietal and appellation integrity and is always passionate about finding the next great bottle of wine.


  1. Morton Leslie March 31, 2008 at 2:51 PM - Reply

    I am not aware of a study that has conclusively linked biogenic amines and red wine intolerance. If there is one I would be very interested in a reference to it.

    In fact, in the last review of research I read (Journal Department of Nutritional Epidemiology, TNO Nutrition and Food Research, The Netherlands), 6 out of 10 studies (that met the review authors’ requirements for being randomized, double blind, placebo controlled) were inconclusive regarding the role of biogenic amines in headache. The four that were conclusive were also negative. One conclusive study showed no relation between biogenic amines in red wine and wine intolerance. Two conclusive studies found no effect of tyramine on migraine. One conclusive study demonstrated no relation between the amount of phenylethylamine in chocolate and headache attacks in individuals with headache.

    I seriously, would like to know of a conclusive study. I recently spent the better part of a day reviewing the literature for my nephew and couldn’t find one. The Mars device makes for an interesting story but before we start measuring wines for a “headache fraction” we should be certain of what it is.

  2. enobytes April 1, 2008 at 7:36 PM - Reply

    Thanks for your comments Morton. As you probably know, this subject has been in debate for decades; I think Dr. Ewan from Addenbrooke Hospital, Cambridge says it best: “The sensitivity to wine is thought to be due to the direct effects of various – poorly defined – chemical components of the wine.”

    I can’t make the call to conclusively link biogenic amines and red wine intolerance (I’m not a Chemist nor do I play one on the Internet) so I’ve called on a few professionals that might shed some light on the subject. I’ll let you know the outcome of their responses. Until then, here are a few good references regarding the subject at hand:

    Beverly McCabe, a clinical dietitian and co-author of “Handbook of Food-Drug Interactions: “Scientists have nominated several culprits for “red wine headache,” including amines like tyramine and histamine, though no conclusions have been reached. Still, many specialists warn headache sufferers away from foods rich in amines, which can also trigger sudden episodes of high blood pressure, heart palpitations and elevated adrenaline levels. The detector [Mathies MOA prototype] could prove useful to those with amine sensitivity”:

    Decanter News; Nasa boffin creates device to end wine headaches. Robert Rex, Winemaker and managing partner Deerfield Ranch Winery proposes to make wine with low levels of histamines rather than measure them or to rely on some external device [MOA]. He left his comments on this page: “The elevated histamines, produced during the fermentation seem to be more reactive after the malo/lactic conversion, although I do not know the mechanism. I hypothesized that we could reduce histamines and therefore reduce “red wine headaches” by reducing toxins in the must or the precursors that caused the yeast to produce histamines. Happy yeast seem to produce less histamine”. Ann Dumont also makes some interesting comments about the subject at hand in the comments area:

    The Wine: Meet the Winemakers of Women of the Vine: “Fermented foods and drinks contain two naturally occurring chemicals: histamines and tyramines. Histamines are in the skins of the grape and are responsible for dilating blood vessels in the brain. Tyramines do the opposite; they constrict your blood vessels. Either one of these chemicals can cause headaches”.

    Scientists have nominated several culprits for “red wine headache,” including amines like tyramine and histamine, though no conclusions have been reached. Still, many specialists warn headache sufferers away from foods rich in amines, which can also trigger sudden episodes of high blood pressure, heart palpitations and elevated adrenaline levels:

    Elusive amines and primary headaches: historical background and prospectives:

    Sensitivity to tyramine: “Sensitivity to tyramine is probably caused by low levels of monoamine oxidase, due to the suppression or a relative deficiency of the enzyme, leading to a build-up of excess tyramine in the body. Symptoms indicating excessive tyramine may include hypertension, tachycardia, severe headache (migraine or non-migraine) and even cardiac failure. Hives, sweating and chills, clamminess and itchiness, flushing of the skin and light-headedness have also been documented (Joneja J. Dealing with food allergies. A practical guide to detecting culprit foods and eating a healthy enjoyable diet. Bull Publishing, Colorado: 58,245-247)

    ~ Pamela

  3. enobytes April 13, 2008 at 8:19 PM - Reply

    As a follow up to this story, many of you have questioned if a conclusive study links biogenic amines with red wine intolerance. Although past trials have not produced conclusive results, it is in part due to the fact that the trials are sponsored, which requires randomized individuals all with different genotypes.

    According to Dr. Mathies, a randomized trial is not an effective way to conduct this sort of study, for it “…is masked out by genetic variation”. Dr. Mathies proposes conducting a trial on those who are particularly sensitive to tyramine, where his hypothesis focuses on certain individuals having reduced MAO expression or activity that are particularly sensitive to tyramine levels in wine and other foods which can cause hypertensive response. According to Dr. Mathies, “It would be more reasonable to select affected individual(s) and do a blind dose response study with well-defined and reproducible wine samples having different spiked tyramine levels”.

    Mathies hopes to continue his research in this area once he organizes additional funding. I’ll keep you posted as more information becomes available.


  4. enobytes September 29, 2008 at 10:03 PM - Reply

    As an FYI, the University of California Berkeley Solar System Exploration “In the News” headlined our article here.

  5. Lia February 12, 2009 at 10:02 AM - Reply

    Never mind headaches, this is great news for all us taking MAO Inhibitor drugs which mean we cant drink wine without risking shock

  6. Brian February 12, 2009 at 10:44 AM - Reply

    Oh wow, you guys made headlines on the UC Berkeley news page. That’s pretty cool!

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