An apple a day keeps the doctor away, but not if your apple is covered in bacterial biofilm, a potentially chronic illness-causing bacteria that sticks to produce and packaging in the shipping process.
Now a graduate student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has discovered a way to attack the potentially harmful bacteria that sticks to food packaging, a discovery with immense commercial potential.
Meet biofilm – your produces’ worst nightmare
Bacterial biofilms are an ever-increasing problem in the food industry, especially for fresh produce. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that food-borne diseases cause an estimated 48 million illnesses each year in the United States alone, 45 percent of which are caused by bacteria.
The issue of biofilm build-up is increasingly significant as industrialized countries see an increased demand for fresh produce and raise awareness of the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables. But public health concerns about fresh produce are especially acute because many of these products are consumed raw. Countless microorganisms, including illness-causing bacteria, attach to food and packaging surfaces, forming biofilms in a complex and multifaceted process.
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In order to rid produce of pesky biofilm, a recent discovery that bacteria actually talk to one another, in a process called quorum sensing, was applied in Brandwein’s research. He discovered that this cross-talk is one of the factors that regulate biofilm formation. When certain molecules detect a sufficiently high cell density, they activate a cascade of genetic processes that leads to the bacteria’s adhesion. Controlling the production or integration of these molecules can prevent the bacteria from coordinating to create a biofilm.
Along those lines, Brandwein has incorporated a novel molecule synthesized at the Hebrew University, called TZD, into anti-biofilm food packaging. At the Biofilm Research Laboratory the molecule successfully interfered with biofilm formation by bacteria and fungi. It has also been tested successfully to prevent biofilms in recycled water systems.
Marketing Brandwein’s research to world
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Brandwein’s research has focused specifically on corrugated cardboard boxes, the worldwide medium for transporting the vast majority of fresh agricultural produce. The technology has now been successfully incorporated into industry-specific acrylic polymers, meant to coat the corrugated cardboard used to package fresh produce.
“We have shown that these ‘quorum quenching polymers’ dramatically reduce the biofilm load on corrugated cardboard, leading to a healthier and more efficient method of transporting today’s food,” says Brandwein. The Hebrew University, through its technology transfer company, Yissum, holds granted patents on the process, and has signed an agreement with B.G. Tech of Kibbutz Beit Guvrin for further development and commercialization.
“While millions of dollars have been spent globally to develop antimicrobial polymers, no one has succeeded in developing and marketing anti-quorum sensing/anti-biofilm polymers. We therefore predict that our product will enjoy exclusivity for many years to come,” said Brandwein. “We envision our technology being applied to frozen food packaging, poultry and meat packaging and other areas within the food packaging industry.”
The researchers predict revenue potential in the many millions of dollars. In addition to addressing health concerns, preventing food contamination has significant economic implications for increasing the shelf life of products. Growers are also a potential source of income, since bacterial biofilms are also a major source of post-harvest crop loss worldwide, infecting a wide variety of plant tissues and thereby causing bacterial soft rot, rendering the fruit or vegetable unfit for consumption.
Michael Brandwein, a recent immigrant to Israel from New York City, is a researcher under the supervision of Prof. Doron Steinberg from the Biofilm Research Laboratory of the Hebrew University’s Dental Faculty. He is one of two graduate students who was presented with the Kaye Innovation Award during the 77th annual meeting of the Hebrew University Board of Governors for his innovative biofilm-eliminating packaging solutions.