New applications could see nanotechnology being utilised in food industry in the not too distant future
Nanotechnology could have a potentially transformative effect on the food industry and the world
The science of nanotechnology is most often associated with high-tech materials and electronics but is increasingly being used in the medical arena and new applications could see it being utilised in the food industry in the not too distant future.
According to Teagasc research officer Maeve Henchion, the technology could have a potentially transformative effect on the industry and the world. “It can be used to tackle issues like obesity and food waste,” she says.
“For example, a lot of people say they don’t like low fat products because they are not creamy enough and they don’t have the right texture. Nanotechnology could be used to address those issues and make the products taste more like full fat versions.”
Food waste can be tackled through sensors embedded on food packaging.
“At the moment the food companies put best before dates on packages which are designed to be very safe,” Henchion says.
“That means the food can often be quite safe to eat but is thrown out. This is very wasteful. Having packaging which can detect the presence of pathogens in the food, and react to it by changing colour, would reduce wastage greatly as food would only be thrown out when it has gone off. This would also improve food safety. All the major food companies are working on this area at the moment.”
One of the areas Teagasc is working on is to create sensors that can detect specific pathogens and accurately assess the amount present during the food manufacturing process. These sensors will make use of what are known as phage-derived nanomaterials.
Bacteriophages, or phages, are viruses that specifically target bacteria. They are minute particles composed of protein and nucleic acid which are seen as very promising new nanomaterials.
“They are attracting attention from many diverse fields including medical science, pharmaceutical science, material science, microelectronics, biosensors, detection, environmental science, and food science,” says Dr Olivia McAuliffe, senior research officer with Teagasc’s Food Research Centre in Moorepark, Co Cork. “Phages are unique compared to other nanomaterials in that they can be intentionally modified, or even rewritten, using genetic engineering.”
She points out that they are already in use in medical applications.
“On the medical side of things it is being used as a drug delivery mechanism. You can express a particular protein on the surface of the phage that makes it target a particular cell type such as a cancer cell.
“This is the beauty of phages – they can be engineered in this way.”
Another medical application is their bactericidal properties. Again they can be engineered just to target a specific type of bacteria and it is also possible to extract the bactericidal protein from them and use it rather than the phage itself for the treatment.
“Our main interest is in multi-drug-resistant pathogens,” McAuliffe points out. “There are phage proteins that kill MRSA and c.difficile for example. These proteins are effectively antibiotics but they will work when traditional antibiotics will not. This is a very exciting area.”