Bacteria-destroying insect wings inspire new antibacterial packaging

An Australian-Japanese research team has developed a new antibacterial polymer inspired by insect wings for use on food packaging to improve shelf life and reduce waste. The new product was announced in the ACS Applied Nano Materials journal on March 27.

Dragonfly and cicada wings are covered with a vast array of nanopillars – blunt spikes similar in size to bacterial cells. When bacteria land on a wing, the nanopillar pattern separates the cells, rupturing their membranes and killing them.

By replicating insect nanopillars, a research team from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, has developed a nanotexture capable of performing the same function. To assess the antibacterial ability of the motif, bacterial cells were monitored in RMIT’s world-class microscopy and microanalytical facility. The research is a collaboration between RMIT, Tokyo Metropolitan University and the KAITEKI Institute.

In a report published on the university’s website, Professor Elena Ivanova of RMIT University in Melbourne said the research team had successfully applied a natural phenomenon to a synthetic material, plastic. “This is an important step in eliminating bacterial contamination and extending the shelf life of foods,” she noted.

More than 30% of food produced for human consumption becomes waste, with entire shipments being rejected if bacterial growth is detected. Research sets the stage for dramatically reducing waste, particularly in meat and dairy exports, as well as extending shelf life and improving the quality, safety and integrity of industrially packaged foods , according to Ivanova.

“We knew that the wings of cicadas and dragonflies were very effective bacteria killers and could help inspire a solution, but replicating nature is always a challenge. We have now created a nanotexture that mimics the bacteria-killing effect of insect wings and retains its antibacterial potency when printed on plastic,” she explained.

“This is a big step towards a natural, antibacterial packaging solution for the food and manufacturing industry. We can now develop and apply antibacterial properties to packaging, among a range of other potential applications, such as personal protective equipment,” she concluded.