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Bacteria-fighting polymers created with light by University of Warwick researchers

Antimicrobials are agents that destroy microorganisms or inhibit their growth. They have a range of essential uses such as in the treatment of internal disease and infections, in personal care products, foods and topical creams. Antimicrobial resistance is becoming an increasingly urgent issue and there is a rising need to develop new, non-traditional agents.

University of Warwick researchers at the Department of Chemistry and Warwick Medical School have devised a method to synthesise large libraries of copolymers with antimicrobial properties using light. The Gibson Group has developed a simple, and rapid method to identify antimicrobial properties of copolymers using multiple ‘building blocks’ in polymers.

Antimicrobial resistance is becoming an increasingly urgent issue and there is a rising need to develop new, non-traditional agents

The method employs light controlled polymerisation and simple robotics for the synthesis and screening of polymers with the potential to kill superbugs. Furthermore, this approach does not require the use of sealed vials, something otherwise essential for most polymer syntheses, and the chemistry can be done exposed to air. Using this method, hundreds of polymers can be screened enabling researchers to find polymers with the ability to fight bacteria.

Traditional antimicrobials, such as penicillin, work by inhibiting essential cellular processes. Professor Matthew Gibson’s team was inspired by host-defence peptides that destroy bacteria by breaking apart their cell membrane. Dr Sarah-Jane Richards from the Gibson Group and a lead author of the paper said: “Surprisingly, the best materials do not seem to break apart the bacteria as we predicted, but rather inhibit their growth.”

This approach does not require the use of sealed vials, something otherwise essential for most polymer syntheses, and the chemistry can be done exposed to air

Professor Matthew Gibson at the Department of Chemistry and Warwick Medical School, also a lead author of the paper, acknowledges that many people have mimicked antimicrobial peptides with polymers before. However, the difficulty was in the number of different combinations that could be used in the synthesis.

Some materials found using this new method would not have been identified using a 1-vial/ 1-polymer method. This is because traditional polymerisation methods are limited in their chemical and compositional space where this newly-developed versatile method will help develop new biomaterials with important properties. This method involving simple robotics is also adapted to enable automation, scalability, and ease of use in ‘open’ reaction vessels.

Traditional polymerisation methods are limited in their chemical and compositional space where this newly-developed versatile method will help develop new biomaterials with important properties

This research not only shows new exciting potential in the field of biomaterials but also provides us with a positive outlook on robotics and AI. Scientists, through this discovery, have provided us with an example of how robotics can be used in the laboratory to enable researchers to focus more on the chemistry rather than spending vast amounts of their time and energy synthesising different materials.

Where it may not have been possible to synthesise such a versatile range of copolymers in the laboratory, researchers were able to use their knowledge and expertise to develop a method and use the technology available to accelerate the discovery of new complex materials. Using this method, researchers can now ‘go fishing’ for the emergent properties of these biomaterials.

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