New material tackles harmful fungi

Scientists from La Trobe University and the University of Nottingham have developed a new way to control harmful fungi, without the need for chemical fungicides or antifungals.

Fungi cause fatal diseases in humans, animals and crops, and spoil products and materials. This has led to an antifungals/fungicide industry worth around US$30bn (AUD$43bn) globally.

La Trobe Institute of Molecular Science Professor David Winkler is a co-author of a paper published recently in Science Advances that describes how the team developed innovative polymer materials that passively block fungal attachment to surfaces, negating the need for potentially harmful fungicides or other bioactive chemicals.

“The practical applications for these new materials are potentially very broad, including coatings for implanted medical protheses to make them more resistant to harmful fungi, and replacement of chemical fungicides in agrochemical formulations by passive materials like these polymers” said Professor Winkler, who holds a joint appointment with Nottingham.

The team identified polymers that resist the attachment of several types of fungi. They screened hundreds of (meth)acrylate polymers, identifying several that reduce attachment of the human pathogen Candida albicans, the crop pathogen Botrytis cinerea, and other fungi. Specific chemical features of the non-toxic polymers, identified by machine learning, were associated with weak fungal attachment.

The team developed a formulation with these materials suitable for inkjet-based 3D printing. Printed voice-prosthesis components, such as those used in patients who have had a tracheotomy, showed reduction in C. albicans biofilm up to 100 per cent compared with commercial materials. Spray-coated leaf surfaces also resisted fungal infection and displayed no plant toxicity. A similar approach against bacterial pathogens is also now being developed for a catheter coating to prevent infections in patients.

The lead investigator on the paper, Professor Simon Avery from the School of Life Sciences at the University said: “This is the first high-throughput study of polymer chemistries resisting fungal attachment.

“Our industry engagement to date has highlighted a clear need for a new approach to control fungi and the major socioeconomic problems that they cause, as the value of existing strategies using bioactives (antifungals, fungicides) is eroded by growing antifungal resistance and regulations.

“This passive, anti-attachment technology addresses this need. We have been able to show that different polymers are effective in resisting diverse fungi that have broad socio-economic impacts.”

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