Nanoengineering to eliminate biofilms

Ever heard of biofilms? They sound a lot more complicated than they really are: surface-coating layers of polymeric extracellular secretions and microorganisms that accumulate on a matrix over time.

Here it is in simpler terms: Biofilms are layers of grime that gather on a surface, leading to corrosion and making it harder to effectively clean and disinfect that surface. This makes it easy for microorganisms to find a home there, so you can think of a biofilm as a microbial community.

Biofilms are a problem in food production and processing, as well as on animal production facilities. On food production and processing sites, the presence of biofilms can lead to food being contaminated with pathogens, which can result in foodborne illness outbreaks and/or costly recalls. On the farm, biofilms can contaminate water lines and other areas, which can harm animals over time, decreasing their productivity.

Now, researchers at the University of Hawaii have made developments in figuring out how to prevent biofilms (or at least decrease their presence). The researchers found that microbes — including dangerous pathogens like Salmonella or Listeria — don’t accumulate easily on nanoengineered aluminum.

Their process was to treat aluminum with oxalic acid, creating nanopillars and nanopores. These are types of nanostructures — incredibly small pillars or holes that can be grouped together into special patterns that have certain results, depending on what they’re engineered to do. The researchers etched these nanostructures with phosphoric acid, and coated the structure with a very thin layer of Teflon. Oils were put into the nanopores to keep surfaces slippery.

Ultimately, the treatment was shown to reduce microbial settlement by as much as 99%.

Experts hope that in the future, this and other examples of nanoengineering can be used to solve biofilm problems on all sorts of food contact surfaces, from processing equipment to countertops. Bacteria-resistant surfaces are just another of many instances where cutting-edge technology is helping to make our food supply as safe as it can possibly be.

Neogen offers metagenomics testing technology that can identify the types of microbes found in any given biofilm. For more information, click here. For more information on Neogen’s cleaners and disinfectants that help prevent biofilms in animal production environments, click here.

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