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Antibacterial packaging modelled on bacteria-busting wing patterns

Ian Royall, March 23, 2022 7:05PM Kids News

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Nano-pillars on the surface of a dragonfly wing, magnified 20,000 times, act as blunt spikes that destroy bacteria on contact. Picture: RMIT media_cameraNano-pillars on the surface of a dragonfly wing, magnified 20,000 times, act as blunt spikes that destroy bacteria on contact. Picture: RMIT

science

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Insect wings are providing the unlikely inspiration for new antibacterial* food packaging that will improve shelf life and reduce waste.

A team of Australian and Japanese scientists are using the bacteria-killing characteristics of the wings of insects, such as cicadas and dragonflies, to create lab-made material that can kills up to 70 per cent of bacteria.

Insect wings have nano-pillars – or blunt spikes – which destroy bacteria on contact. The scientists are creating material with nano-patterns, inspired by the insect wings. These patterns also kill bacterial cells.

media_cameraDragonfly wings are among those with antibacterial nano-pillars – or blunt spikes – that have inspired a lab-made material that can kill up to 70 per cent of bacteria. Picture: Chris Smith/Photocrowd/Things with Wings contest

The new technology has major implications* for food storage because so much is wasted when bacterial growth seeps into food. The new material helps shield food from bacterial contamination*.

RMIT University’s School of Science Distinguished* Professor Elena Ivanova said the team had successfully applied a natural phenomenon* to plastic.

“We knew the wings of cicadas and dragonflies were highly-efficient bacteria killers and could help inspire a solution, but replicating* nature is always a challenge,’’ Professor Ivanova said.

The breakthrough was a big step towards a non-chemical, antibacterial packaging solution for food manufacturing, she said.

Professor Ivanova and her colleagues first discovered that insect wings were natural-born bacteria killers a decade ago.

media_cameraRMIT Multifunctional Mechano-biocidal Materials Research group. Pictured from left, Dr Denver Linklater, Phuc Le, Distinguished Professor Elena Ivanova, Dr Arturo Aburto-Medina, Karolline De Sousa. Picture: RMIT University

The research is a collaboration between RMIT, Tokyo Metropolitan University and the KAITEKI Institute which was established by the Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation.

The team is now working on scaling up the technology to find the best way to mass produce the antibacterial packaging.

But the potential applications of the technology do not stop with packaging. In an earlier 2020 review published in Nature Reviews Microbiology*, the researchers detailed how potential uses might one day even include defeating drug-resistant superbugs.

Insect wings are natural bacteria killers

Professor Ivanova said at the time that finding non-chemical ways of killing bacteria was critical, with more than 700,000 people dying each year due to drug-resistant bacterial infection.

“Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is one of the greatest threats to global health and routine treatment of infection is becoming increasingly difficult,” Professor Ivanova said.

“When we look to nature for ideas, we find insects have evolved* highly effective antibacterial systems.

“If we can understand exactly how insect-inspired nano-patterns kill bacteria, we can be more precise in engineering* these shapes to improve their effectiveness against infections.

“Our ultimate goal is to develop low-cost and scalable* antibacterial surfaces for use in implants* and in hospitals, to deliver powerful new weapons in the fight against deadly superbugs.”

Maroon Moment media_cameraCicadas also have nano-pillars on their wings, which do double-duty as bacteria busters. Picture: Steve Pohlner

While at Swinburne University, Professor Ivanova and Professor Saulius Juodkazis won the 2017 Eureka Prize for Scientific Research for their bacteria-busting work.

GLOSSARY

  • antibacterial: anything that destroys bacteria or suppresses bacterial growth
  • implications: possible future effect or result
  • contamination: process of making something dirty, poisonous, dangerous or unusable
  • distinguished: eminent, prominent, renowned, marked by excellence
  • phenomenon: observable, interesting or remarkable fact or event
  • replicating: duplicating, reproducing, repeating
  • microbiology: study of living microorganisms too small to be seen with the naked eye
  • evolved: develop and change gradually over time
  • engineering: making, creating, building, bringing something about by design
  • scalable: a business or system that is able to grow or be made larger
  • implants: devices or tissues that are placed inside or on the surface of the body

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. What percentage of bacteria can the lab-made material kill?
  2. What are two insects that nano-pillars on their wings?
  3. Why does the new technology have such big implications for food storage?
  4. How else might the technology be applied?
  5. How many people die each year due to drug-resistant bacterial infection?

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CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Create an advertisement
Some people might hear about this technology and think manufacturers will start using actual insect wings for food packaging, which is not a very appealing thought! Luckily the material is man-made and only modelled on insect wings, adopting the properties of the nano-pillars or “blunt spikes” that these wings have naturally.

Write a jingle (song for a radio or TV ad), create a storyboard for a TV or online ad or design an ad for a print or online magazine. The purpose of your ad is to change their misconception about the role of insect wings in developing this food packaging – it’s not disgusting, it’s amazing!

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Science; Visual Communication Design; Music

2. Extension
Explain how and why insect wings are great bacteria busters. The only rule is that you are not allowed to use words. You can only use diagrams or drawings.

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Science; Visual Communication Design

VCOP ACTIVITY
Stretch your sentence
Find a “who” in the story – a person or an animal. Write it down.

Add three adjectives to describe them better.

Now add a verb to your list. What are they doing?

Add an adverb about how they are doing the action.

Using all the words listed, create one descriptive sentence.

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