Hidden in plain sight: uncovering the significant threats and untapped potential of microbial biofilms within the food life cycle

Dr. Oliver Habimana; University of Hong Kong's School of Biological Sciences

Biofilms on surfaces may be regarded as the most primitive form of organized life to have existed on earth, allowing microbial life to thrive and survive through the geological annals of time. The ability to survive and adapt within biofilms is owed in part to the protective properties of its extracellular polymeric substances and the physiological state, activity, and structure of its microbial community. Faced with the various environmental changes witnessed in our Anthropocene epoch, biofilms are still thriving and colonizing surfaces that can directly or indirectly affect human health. While eliminating such biofilms on surfaces has helped reduce disease or the spread of unwanted pathogenic organisms, their presence in hard to reach/clean areas may still pose a threat to public health and food safety. Nevertheless, taming functional aspects of biofilms through biotechnology and engineering could also potentially provide solutions in reducing biodegradable waste in urban settings. This seminar will unravel the body of work surrounding microbial biofilms within different areas of the food life cycle, from their presence in agricultural irrigation systems, food contact surfaces to finally engineered systems for reducing domestic disposed food waste. Aspects concerning biofilm interactions with biological, chemical and physical pollutants will be presented and the various models used to study these interactions and reactivities. Potential future directions will also be raised on the topic of improving our fundamental understanding of the role of these biofilms in the context of water and produce safety using a newly developed lab-based technique for generating standardized multispecies biofilms. Moreover, advances in high-throughput sequencing technologies will be applied to investigate the survival strategies of isolated pathogens on food contact surfaces