Sustainability at the Frontier: Unveiling Nature’s Potential for Health and Food Innovations

Over 50% of the cork produced worldwide comes from Portugal. This material, used for products that range from wine stoppers to the isolation of spaceships, is at the heart of two ERC research grants developed at ITQB NOVA over the last years. The reason is that half of cork’s weight is made up of suberin, a plant polymer with remarkable antimicrobial, anti-biofouling and hydrophobic properties. Suberin can mimic natural processes and offer sustainable alternatives for combating fungal infections, as explored in the project MIMESIS – “Development of biomaterials through mimesis of plant defensive interfaces to fight wound infections”, but also for encapsulation technologies in the food and drug industries, as investigated in SNAIL – “High-performance hydrophobic suberin nanoparticles for the generation of liquid-air biphasic droplets with application in food and therapeutics”. Both projects were led by ERC Grantee Cristina Silva Pereira, head of the Applied and Environmental Mycology lab of ITQB NOVA.

ITQB NOVA is a scientific research and advanced training institute of NOVA University Lisbon. The institute is located in Oeiras, a seaside town with the highest GDP/capita and the most educated population in the country. The institution excels in Molecular Biosciences across diverse disciplines, contributing to societal challenges focused on the well-being of human societies and on the environment.

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The vision for the ERC-funded MIMESIS project was to develop wound dressing biomaterials that combine antimicrobial and skin regeneration properties. The research team successfully developed a biocompatible extraction method that preserves the plant polyesters’ antimicrobial capabilities. Building on this success, the team secured an ERC Proof of Concept Grant in 2024, for potential applications in food and therapeutics. This new project, SNAIL, explores the potential of suberin in encapsulation technologies, envisioning a sustainable shield for functional ingredients, such as probiotics and proteins. By transforming plant polyesters into purposeful biomaterials, this work represents a shift away from energy-intensive synthetic production methods, focusing instead on “closing the loop”, supported by the principles of green chemistry and biorefinery.
During the residency, the science journalist is invited to discover this research, which is not only advancing scientific frontiers but also actively contributing to a more sustainable future by having a clear focus and commitment on the translation into tangible innovations. In addition to delving into the project’s intricacies, supported by ITQB NOVA’s cutting-edge facilities, including the largest Portuguese NMR facility, CERMAX, the science journalist will have the opportunity to experience all the intricacies atmosphere of scientific exploration. This encompasses the dynamic journey of discovery, comprising both highs and lows, where breakthroughs are not confined to “Eureka” moments.