EnvironSafe: Cold Plasma Innovations for Food Safety and Sustainability

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University of Belfast
Department Name: Sch of Pharmacy

Abstract

Plasmas are regarded as the fourth state of matter, alongside solids, liquids and gases. Plasmas are partially or completely ionised gases and in nature make up over 99% of the observable universe, including the sun, the aurora (northern lights), lightening and domestic lighting. Plasmas form when gases are provided with sufficient energy, for example by addition of thermal energy or under the influence of a strong electric field, to ionise. Plasmas are already used widely in teh microelectronics industry and for sterilisation applications, but these plasmas are generated under low pressure and reach very high temperatures (thermal plasmas). The ability to generate plasmas at or near room temperature, known as non-thermal or 'cold' plasmas, has led to a wide range of applications for treatment of human diseases, a new field known as plasma medicine. Cold plasmas generate a rich chemical environment at ambient temperatures and pressures which is mainly comprised of chemical species known as reactive oxygen and nitrogen species (RONS), which interact with eukaryotic and prokaryotic forms of life. This makes them useful for the treatment of bacterial infections, where they show rapid and broad spectrum activity, and for some human diseases where they can modify diseased tissues (such as topical cancers and wounds). Because of the rich chemical environment generated by cold plasmas, multiple targets in bacteria are modified, meaning that resistance us unlikely to emerge. In addition, the plasma chemistry has the ability to neutralise and modify a range of chemical agents such as proteins, toxins, enzymes, allergens and small molecules which may enter the human food chain and cause diseases. Therefore, in this research proposal we will design, construct, characterise and test plasma generating devices for use in a range of applications where we will either directly expose samples to plasma or generate plasmas in liquids and test the activity of the 'plasma activated liquids' (PALs). The overall aim of the research is to develop plasma treatment systems which are able to rapidly and effectively neutralise risks to human health which can enter the food chain at any point from processing of food to its preparation for consumption. These risks include bacterial biofilms which are bacterial communities which form on surfaces and encase themselves in a slimy matrix, making it difficult to remove or destroy them using standard chemical disinfectants which are commonly used in the food industry. Plasmas will be tested for their ability to remove these biofilms or to weaken them to the extent that they can be eradicated using much lower doses of antimicrobial agents (biocides). In addition, we have shown that plasmas can neutralise certain chemical agents, such as enzymes and other proteins and small molecules (antibiotics, bacterial signalling molecules), therefore, plasmas may also be useful in removing chemical agents from the food chain which pose a risk to human health such as toxins from microorganisms and allergens. However, it is important to understand and characterise biological and chemical interactions of cold plasma with bacteria, human cells and the various chemical agents identified as risks in the food chain. We will use advanced physical, biological and chemical analysis techniques to a dress these important questions. In this way, the use of plasmas to decontaminate critical areas for food processing, manufacture and preparation may remove critical microbiological and chemical agents from the food chain which will increase the longevity of food products and reduce waste, and improve the safety and sustainability of the food chain. This has the potential to have significant impact in improving health by reducing food borne diseases and conditions, reduce waste in the preparation, processing and distribution of food products and improve the profitability of the Agri-Food sector in the United Kingdom, Ireland and globally.

Technical Summary

The ability to generate plasmas (wholly or partially ionised gases) at ambient temperatures and pressures (atmospheric pressure, non-thermal plasmas) has given rise to increasing applications in medicine, cancer therapy, environmental effluent, agricultural and food decontamination sectors. Cold plasmas have the benefit of generating a rich chemical environment, composed primarily of reactive oxygen and nitrogen species, at the point of application or if generated in liquids produce reactive species in solution. Cold plasmas therefore have a number of distinct advantages over conventional biocidal approaches to controlling contaminating microorganisms, including rapid microbicidal, sporicidal and virucidal activity, and rapid eradication of bacterial biofilms. Due to the multiple species generated and multiple cellular targets of cold plasmas, resistance to plasma exposure has not been observed and is unlikely to emerge. In addition, cold plasmas do not adversely affect surfaces, leave no residues after treatment and may act in synergy. Finally, recent work from our groups have demonstrated that plasma treatment of chemical residues including antibiotics, biological toxins and pesticide can neutralise and inactivate these agents. Therefore, cold plasmas possess the ability to mitigate both microbiological and chemical agents which pose a risk to food safety, security and sustainability at all stages of the food chain. In this proposal both liquid and dry plasma treatment systems will be designed, constructed, characterised and evaluated for their ability to control important contamination risks in the food chain, both microbiological (bacterial biofilms of food borne, enteric and antibiotic resistant pathogens) and chemical residues (toxins and allergens), which will significantly improve the safety, integrity and sustainability of the food chain and expand our understanding of cold plasma-biochemical interactions.

Planned Impact

Who Will Benefit from this Research? The outcomes from this research programme will have a number of academic beneficiaries across a wide range of fields, from the life sciences, food, microbiology and plasma physics communities, especially those whose research interests are in biological and chemical interactions of cold plasmas and technological plasma development. Impacts are expected through innovation in prototype development, high impact data and case studies, commercialisation and dissemination. The outcomes of this research will primarily benefit end users and consumers and as such, outcomes of this programme will have direct benefits to the food and beverage industry, public health and food microbiology, manufacturers and providers of high level disinfectants, immunologists, and medical device manufacturers and researchers. Academic scientists in the field of microbiology, particularly food and biofilm microbiology will also be direct beneficiaries of the outcomes of this research, and those scientists with interests in the development of non-thermal plasmas across a range of applications, including therapeutic uses. This project will generate a large body novel data relating to plasma diagnostics and optimization for each proposed application, biofilm-plasma interactions and plasma synergy with conventional antimicrobials, modification of immunological and toxicological residues, plasma chemistry and chemical analysis. In depth chemical analysis is likely to reveal plasma-induced chemical modifications which may have applications in chemical synthesis, polymer science and medicinal chemistry. In-depth analysis of the cytotoxicity/genotoxicity of plasma exposures and, especially, plasma activated liquids addresses an important lacuna within this field. The application of cold plasma has widespread and far-reaching impacts and benefits across many disparate fields, amongst consumers and end-users, regulators, healthcare providers (infection and contamination control), NGOs, economists and scientists working in commercial laboratories.
The PDRAs undertaking this programme of research will benefit from the multidisciplinary training and collaboration within this project, contributing to the development of the next generation of food science, microbiology and plasma physics research scientists who will be required to maintain the safety, sustainability and integrity of the food chain in the future.
How will they benefit from this research? The development of novel plasma treatment systems for mitigation of risks in the food chain has to potential to benefit the fields of food microbiology, infection control, ecotoxicology and immunology. Insights into novel mechanisms of action of plasma and interactions with biological systems and chemical residues have the potential to bring about novel approaches for control of food chain processing environments. Any new mechanisms of action will represent a significant step in realizing the translation of this technology, and will have significant benefits to the UK/Irish Agri-Food sector and the consumers body. The increasing recognition of the UK and Ireland as a global leaders in food security an sustainability. Dissemination of the outcomes of this research will stimulate interest in STEM subjects and attract the brightest and most innovative graduates to this important field.
Public Events: Various opportunities to disseminate our findings beyond academic meetings will be undertaken, including university-specific mechanisms for communicating locally using the "DNA of innovation" programme (QUB), open to the general public, private sector and investors. Open days are also held for public and consumers by both Institutes and at IGFS outreach events. School Outreach: All investigators are involved in outreach activities, science week, career workshops and fairs. Publicising research at these events is a highly attractive tool for engaging young students in STEM pathways

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description We have discovered that (in line with original objectives of the grant) cold plasma efficiently degrade both bacterial (e.g. LPS) and fungal mycotoxins in food matrices and in food samples. In additon we have discovered the ability of plasma exposures to synergise conventional antimicrobials in biofilms formed by bacteria associated with food contamination and human infection, and to degrade antibiotic compounds (such as beta lactams). Furthermore, we have demonstrated that plasma exposure activates some photosensitizers through an unconventional mechanism which leads to enhanced rates of kills. We are studying this phenomenon as it is likely to lead to patent protection for this science and new products, particularly in the area of packaging and medical device biomaterials. Furthermore, we are examining the role of plasma activated water on decontamination of pathogens on surfaces and have identified the key reactive species and parameters for effective pathogen eradication. In addition, we have developed key protocols for identification of plasma-derived breakdown products of antibiotic and mycotoxin residues on/within food substrates
Exploitation Route Novel packaging (antimicrobial), translation of plasma to food processing/contamination control applications
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Healthcare

 
Description Establishment of a cold plasma laboratory at Queen's University Belfast which is focused on translation of cold plasma technology to the agri-food space
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink
Impact Types Economic

 
Description AgriPlas - 'Establishment of a cold plasma facility to undertake cutting edge research in novel methods to reduce animal disease, reduce antibiotic use, reduce feed and food contamination and reduce food waste'
Amount £450,000 (GBP)
Organisation Centre of Innovation Excellence in Livestock 
Sector Private
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2018 
End 03/2018
 
Description Department for the Economy (DfE NI) Cooperative Awards in Science and Technology (CAST) PhD Studentship with Linden Foods
Amount £87,000 (GBP)
Organisation Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2019 
End 09/2022
 
Description EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account Enterprise Fellowship
Amount £25,000 (GBP)
Funding ID
Organisation Queen's University Belfast 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2019 
End 06/2019
 
Description Innovate UK Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) 'Developing innovative non-thermal solutions to extend the shelf life of fresh produce'
Amount £239,965 (GBP)
Organisation Knowledge Transfer Partnerships 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2018 
End 04/2021
 
Description Irish Research Council New Foundations Scheme: PlasmaAPPS All Ireland Plasma Science and Technology Applications Network.
Amount € 9,000 (EUR)
Organisation Irish Research Council 
Sector Public
Country Ireland
Start 01/2017 
End 01/2018
 
Description Mars Incorporated USA - Aflatoxin Decontamination Strategies
Amount £135,984 (GBP)
Funding ID R8879GFS 
Organisation Mars Incorporated UK 
Sector Private
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2020 
End 12/2020
 
Description SFI-DfE (NI) COVID-19 Research Call 2020 COVID-19 and the environment. Plasma-enabled fogging for safe and effective surface decontamination'
Amount € 313,602 (EUR)
Organisation Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country Ireland
Start 08/2020 
End 08/2022
 
Description US- Ireland Partnership - Brendan Gilmore - Cold Plasma to Treat Post-Surgical Orthopedic Infection: A tripartite USA/Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland Consortium
Amount £579,985 (GBP)
Funding ID STL/5350/17 
Organisation Public Health Agency (PHA) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2020 
End 09/2025
 
Description Submission of European Joint Doctorate Application to Horizon2020 
Organisation University College Dublin
Department School of Biology and Environmental Science
Country Ireland 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Prof Brendan Gilmore was a co-PI on a European Joint Doctorate Scheme application with Prof Paula Bourke (UCD) and Prof Jan van Impe (KU Leuven) entitled 'i4Plasmas - Innovative Plasma Science and technology for Sustainable agrifood SystemS' in January 2020 (pending review and decision in 2020) H2020-MSCA-ITN-2020 The research doctoral degree will be awarded to those Marie Sklodowska-Curie researchers who will fulfil, at the end of their research work, the requirements as set out in the formal agreement to establish the double research doctoral degree between the relevant participating organisations.
Collaborator Contribution KU Leuven and UCD will equally support the recruitment and will participate and contribute to the research, innovation and training activities as planned in this project
Impact No outputs as yet, beyond submission of a major grant application to the H2020-MSCA-ITN-2020 scheme
Start Year 2020
 
Description Submission of European Joint Doctorate Application to Horizon2020 
Organisation University of Leuven
Country Belgium 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Prof Brendan Gilmore was a co-PI on a European Joint Doctorate Scheme application with Prof Paula Bourke (UCD) and Prof Jan van Impe (KU Leuven) entitled 'i4Plasmas - Innovative Plasma Science and technology for Sustainable agrifood SystemS' in January 2020 (pending review and decision in 2020) H2020-MSCA-ITN-2020 The research doctoral degree will be awarded to those Marie Sklodowska-Curie researchers who will fulfil, at the end of their research work, the requirements as set out in the formal agreement to establish the double research doctoral degree between the relevant participating organisations.
Collaborator Contribution KU Leuven and UCD will equally support the recruitment and will participate and contribute to the research, innovation and training activities as planned in this project
Impact No outputs as yet, beyond submission of a major grant application to the H2020-MSCA-ITN-2020 scheme
Start Year 2020
 
Description Delivered a talk entitled Application of Cold Plasmas in the AgriFood Industry to an industry event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Prof Brendan Gilmore gave a talk on cold plasmas in the agri-food sector to SafeFood Knowledge Network 'Food Labelling and Consumer Trust, a workshop for industry delegates.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Interview for National Radio (Farming Today, BBC Radio 4) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Prof Gilmore was interviewed on 11th February 2020 for BBC Radio 4 Farming Today programme where he discussed the application of cold plasmas in the farming, food and feed industries - this is a key aspect of the BBSRC EnvironSafe grant, to translate the use of cold plasmas to industry and in particular to the AgriFood space. The interview has allowed him to reach a wider, general audience with his research in this area than a typical academic/industry conference. Interview here https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000f6vj#play
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Participation in NI ScienceFest 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Prof Gilmore was invited to participate in an 'Antibiotic Apocalypse' event at the Northern Ireland Science Festival (NI ScienceFest) which involved giving a talk on antibiotic discovery (discussion of discovery work ongoing in Kilroot salt mine and the potential of extreme halophiles for the discovery on novel agents and enzymes) and alternative approaches to antibiotics (including non-thermal plasmas). This was followed by a panel discussion led by a media professional. Over 150 people attended the event and the panel discussion stimulated over 45 minutes of debate and discussions, followed by a mixer event where further questions were taken and discussions afterwards. The event was reported via social media
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Primary School Visit to School of Pharmacy, Queen's University Belfast 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact A Primary 6 class (28 pupils) from St Ita's Primary School Belfast visited the school of pharmacy, QUB for a day of fun scientific experiments as part of their 'Science Week' activities. Children were given the opportunity to ask questions about general science, observe experiments based on the general theme of the invisible universe and solids liquids and gases. Children had the opportunity to perform chemistry and microcroscopy experiments. Children were invited to discuss the experiments and presented an assembly on their visit. School reported increased interest in science generally and the other P6 classes at St Ita's will visit QUB school of pharmacy during May-June.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description School Visit 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Visit to St Ita's Primary School, Belfast as part of their 'Science Week' activities. Children were given the opportunity to ask questions about general science, observe experiments based on the general theme of the invisible universe and solids liquids and gases. School children were demonstrated experiments using dry ice, yeast and carbon dioxide formation (experimental varibales -sugar, water temperature) inflating a balloon with CO2, making slime (PVA glue and contact lens solutions containing boric acid preservative) and elephants toothpaste. Children presented their work at the end of science week during a school assembly and the school reports increased enthusiasm for, and interest in science subjects.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description School Visit to Queen's University Belfast 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact 30 school children in Primary 7 (10-11 year olds) from St Patrick's Primary School, Ballygalget (a small rural school) were invited to visit the laboratories at the School of Pharmacy, Queen's University Belfast, where they undertook a wide range of hands-on science activities including microbiology, the science of solids, liquids and gases, chemical reactions and polymer chemistry. This activity was reported on social media, both in the run up and afterwards. In the run up to the event, social media was used to solicit ideas for children's experiments and this has led to engagement with a local science show producer Sue McGrath ('Scientific Sue' https://www.science2life.com ) and we are planning to apply for funding to have her train the research group in science communication to children and to develop microbiology/physics activities for children which will then be rolled out at an open day at QUB for school children. The aim will be to invite children from socio-economically deprived, rural or otherwise low participation in university areas as part of widening participation initiatives.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019