Marc Stapelberg

SCU scientist wages battle against bacteria

A NEW weapon is being developed by Southern Cross University scientist Dr Lachlan Yee in the endless war on bacteria.

Dr Yee is researching the practical application of a nitric oxide "repellent", able to bond with plastic and ward bacteria away.

The project is one of three Southern Cross University projects to receive a share in $1.2 million in Australian Research Council Linkage grants announced by Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne last week.

It could mean all sorts of plastics, from PVC piping to your everyday plastic chopping board, might one day be shielded from bacterial slime.

Dr Yee said bacteria were drawn to plastic surfaces and formed colonies, which eventually appeared slimy.

The traditional method of dealing with them was to "nuke" the site in massive concentrations of biocides, which work at first - until bacteria managed to build up resistance.

"Some of their population will die off, but then they reharvest the DNA from their dead cronies, and they mutate, they can learn," Dr Yee said.

"Furthermore when they die, like the Egyptians they leave their body's DNA up on the wall for everybody to read and learn, and change.

"This why we're up against it with bacteria, they're extremely sophisticated and very good at combatting things that are trying to kill them."

Dr Yee said a superior tactic was to trick the bacteria.

To do this they use nitric oxide, secreted naturally when a bacterial colony is full to tell their young ones to find new homes.

"We are copying nature," Dr Yee said. "We watch what nature does, and then we use that technology to our benefit."

"I like to think of it as bio-mimicry.

"Our hypothesis is they will not develop a resistance to this."

The team is using PVC plastic as a model, but believe once the method is perfected it could be applied to any plastics.

While the technology could be worth millions of dollars to industry - and is of enough interest to plastics manufacturing business Chemson Pacific to partner with SCU in developing the technology - Dr Yee says he's only interested in the science.

"I'm happy if the industry runs with it, but as far as money goes, well that's not really high on my agenda," he laughed.

Successful Australian Research Council Linkage grants for SCU:

Professor Bradley Eyre, Centre for Coastal Biogeochemistry Research: $600,000 over three years: Understand the factors controlling the emission of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide from estuaries

Dr Sally Robinson, Centre for Children and Young People: $360,900 over three years: Improve the rights and wellbeing of young people with cognitive disability by exploring their relationship and interaction with paid support workers

Dr Lachlan Yee, Marine Ecology Research Centre: $231,000 over three years: Develop synthetic plastic surfaces that continuously generate nitric oxide to deter the formation of biofilms

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