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‘Wonder technology’ to transform farming, food production and mitigate AMR pioneered by IGFS

A cutting-edge laboratory investigating a new technology and its ability to reduce harmful chemicals and antibiotics in the food chain – and lessen the threat of anti-microbial resistance (AMR) – has been launched.

The Centre for Plasma in Agri-Food (AgriPlas for short) was officially opened on 14 June in the new Biological Sciences building.

AgriPlas is the first of its kind in Europe; its focus will not only be pioneering research into cold plasma – partially or wholly ionised gases that have antimicrobial properties – but also the potential transformation of commercial food production.

The dedicated research facility will work closely with the Northern Ireland, UK and European agri-food industry, as well as other stakeholders such as farmers, on a number of projects to explore the use of plasma technology in, for example, veterinary treatments, prolonging shelf life of agri-food products and farm biosecurity.

It’s thought that scaled-down plasma technology could be available for use outside of laboratories, eg. by food producers or farmers, in as little as three years’ time.

Cold plasma research, particularly in the agri-food space, is still a relatively young field and although it is being increasingly seen as a potentially revolutionary ‘wonder technology’, it’s believed this is the first time a European university will focus research on agri-food, agriculture and veterinary scenarios. Initial research into cold plasma applications has explored their uses in medicine, particularly controlling infection and cancer research.

Early findings reveal that cold plasmas generate multiple reactive species with excellent antimicrobial and other desirable biological activities and are unlikely cause chemical residue formation like conventional biocidal agents. Because of their potential to reduce, or in some scenarios even supplant, the use of antibiotics, plasmas could be key in the fight against anti-microbial resistance (AMR).

It also makes them ideally suited to applications in farm animal healthcare (eg. to treat infection); farm biosecurity (eg. keeping work surfaces free from bacteria); feed safety (using plasmas to eradicate contamination); and food shelf-life extension (killing bugs or potential contaminants, even through food packaging).

CIEL (Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock), one of the UK’s four Agri-Tech Centres, has supported the creation of AgriPlas by investing £350,000 of Innovate UK funding, in addition to a co-investment by Queen’s.

Lyndsay Chapman, CEO of CIEL said: “Cold plasma presents an exciting alternative to a range of anti-microbial treatments at different stages in the supply chain. It’s cutting-edge technology and the research expertise here could be revolutionary. It offers the potential to transform commercial food production and brings a new dimension to the research capability offered by CIEL.”

AgriPlas will build on existing expertise in plasma knowledge at IGFS, and will involve a multidisciplinary team of physicists, pharmacists, animal-health experts, feed and food safety experts and analytical chemists. Leading this team will be AgriPlas Director, Professor Brendan Gilmore, from IGFS and the School of Pharmacy at Queen’s, where he holds the Chair of Pharmaceutical Microbiology and leads the Biofilm Research Group.

IGFS Director, Professor Nigel Scollan said the reduced use of chemicals and antibiotics will enhance the sustainability, integrity and global marketability of the local, national and international agri-food industry.

He said: “IGFS is delighted to be working with CIEL and many industry partners to advance the application of this exciting technology in the agri-food sector.”