Antimicrobial compound in seaweed can be used to develop self-cleaning surfaces, new research finds
Seaweed is known for being the best dietary source of iodine and for providing many other health benefits. But according to researchers at Unilever, seaweed can also be used to develop self-cleaning surfaces.
After more than a decade of studying the chemical components of seaweed, Unilever announced on Jan. 5 that it has developed a new technology that could harness the antimicrobial properties of this marine algae. Together with Innova Partnerships, the chemical giant also launched a joint venture biotech company called Penrhos Bio that aims to commercialize this scientific breakthrough.
The patented technology — the first of its kind in the world — replicates the natural cleaning process of seaweed. Thanks to a natural compound called Lactam, seaweed can keep surfaces clean and repel unwanted invaders from its direct environment. Researchers at Unilever also found that Lactam has the ability to deter the growth of bacteria and mold on everyday surfaces.
“The [commercialized] use of Lactam presents a significant opportunity for cleaning products globally and could [revolutionize] the industry,” said Dr. Jonathan Hague, the vice president of Open Innovation at Unilever Research and Development.
Banking on seaweed’s unique biology
Items used in everyday life, such as clothing, bank notes and even kitchen surfaces, are constantly exposed to microorganisms present in the environment. Some microbes, especially bacteria, can attach to surfaces and begin to reproduce, forming a community of different bacterial entities known as a biofilm. According to experts, about 80 percent of bacterial infections in humans occur due to contact with surfaces contaminated with biofilms.
Early investigations into the mechanisms of biofilm formation show that bacterial communication systems play a crucial role in biofilm development. Now, new evidence suggests that disrupting these systems could prevent bacteria from growing on surfaces in the first place, making it a viable strategy for keeping surfaces cleaner for longer.
Researchers at Unilever focused their attention on seaweed because of its unique qualities. One of the most notable things about this marine organism is that it never gets coated with biofilm. Their research eventually led to the discovery of Lactam that is produced by seaweeds as part of their defense mechanism. Lactam can disrupt the cell-to-cell signaling between bacteria that controls their behavior and enables different species to coexist within the same biofilm community. The researchers immediately recognized the potential of using Lactam in a broad range of applications, from preventing the growth of mold in washing machines and dishwashers to creating banknotes with self-disinfecting capabilities.
“This biology [of seaweed] works in extreme conditions such that it will keep working in dirty waters by blocking the communication between bacteria so that it cannot [colonize] and build up on healthy surfaces of the plant. This is what we have successfully replicated in the lab, and now we are ready to start [trialing] this in our Unilever cleaning products,” said Dr. Neil Parry, the R&D program director for Biotechnology and Biosourcing at Unilever.
Giving everyday objects the ability to disinfect themselves
In a press release, Unilever said it has partnered with Innova Partnerships to launch Penrhos Bio because it hopes to commercialize the technology. Hague described the applications of Lactam as “almost limitless” and expressed a desire to connect with other industries that would benefit from using it. For instance, the antimicrobial compound from seaweed can be used to make a coating for banknotes or applied in dentistry and even within the medical field.
“The growth of bacteria is a problem when you are pumping gas and oil, in medical catheters, malodoring shoes, bacteria spreading on banknotes, there are multiple applications in vet care,” Hague said.
Another possible use for Lactam is as a coating on the hull of ships. Hague says that this coating has the potential to reduce fuel emissions by 10 percent. Meanwhile, in households, the seaweed-based technology can be used to keep kitchen counters and bathroom tiles clean. Because of Lactam’s unique ability to deter biofilm formation, black mold and infection-causing bacteria won’t have a chance to grow on these surfaces, although home users would still need to clean them regularly.
Seaweed is a versatile organism that produces a wide range of chemicals in response to different environmental stresses. For this reason, many scientists consider it an abundant source of new therapeutic agents. Since the early 2000s, seaweed has been recognized for its incredible antimicrobial properties. A study published in Applied Microbiology reported that many seaweeds are effective against different types of bacterial pathogens, most notably those that have shown resistance to antibiotics.
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