Touchscreen technology could help fight spread of bacteria in hospitals

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Cathy Yeulet/123RF
Even in the relatively short period of time that they have been around, the technology involved in touchscreens has advanced at an impressive rate. Researchers from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute in Stockholm have an unusual new application for the conducting plastic used in touchscreens, however: manipulating the growth of bacteria.

In an innovative piece of research, scientists from Karolinska Institute’s Swedish Medical Nanoscience Center reveal how conducting plastics can also be used to “trick” the metabolism of certain pathogenic bacteria. By either adding or removing electrons from the plastic surface of a touchscreen, bacteria can be made to either grow more or — often ideally — less.

“In order for bacteria to grow they need to respire, just like humans,” Professor Agneta Richter-Dahlfors, one of the researchers on the project, told Digital Trends. “When doing so, they produce electrons. We have used a surface made of conducting polymers as a dynamic interface. By removing the electrons from the conducting polymer via an electric circuit, we help bacteria to get rid of their electrons by delivering them to the surface. By doing so, bacteria grow very well, and they form a dense layer — a so-called biofilm — on the surface. In contrast, when we fill the conducting polymer surface with electrons, again via an electric circuit, all spaces become occupied so bacteria have nowhere to deliver their electrons. This is bad for bacterial growth, and bacterial growth is hampered.”

At present, it’s still relatively early in the research but the team hopes it will be able to use this insight to develop a new, highly-effective antibacterial coating technology. While we would personally love to see something like this used to keep our smartphones bacteria-free, the scientists behind the project have more pressing applications in mind: Namely employing it in hospitals to hinder bacterial infection. It could also be used, conversely, to promote the growth of bacterial biofilms where they are needed — such as in wastewater management systems.

Who knew that some of the technology which makes our iPhones work could also be used to potentially save lives?

A paper describing the research was recently published in the journal NPJ Biofilms and Microbiomes.

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