Active food packaging materials that are sustainable, biodegradable, and capable of precise delivery of antimicrobial active ingredients (AIs) are in high demand. Here, we report the development of novel enzyme- and relative humidity (RH)-responsive antimicrobial fibers with an average diameter of 225 ± 50 nm, which can be deposited as a functional layer for packaging materials. Cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs), zein (protein), and starch were electrospun to form multistimuli-responsive fibers that incorporated a cocktail of both free nature-derived antimicrobials such as thyme oil, citric acid, and nisin and cyclodextrin-inclusion complexes (CD-ICs) of thyme oil, sorbic acid, and nisin. The multistimuli-responsive fibers were designed to release the free AIs and CD-ICs of AIs in response to enzyme and RH triggers, respectively. Enzyme-responsive release of free AIs is achieved due to the degradation of selected polymers, forming the backbone of the fibers. For instance, protease enzyme can degrade zein polymer, further accelerating the release of AIs from the fibers. Similarly, RH-responsive release is obtained due to the unique chemical nature of CD-ICs, enabling the release of AIs from the cavity at high RH. The successful synthesis of CD-ICs of AIs and incorporation of antimicrobials in the structure of the multistimuli-responsive fibers were confirmed by X-ray diffraction and Fourier transform infrared spectrometry. Fibers were capable of releasing free AIs when triggered by microorganism-exudated enzymes in a dose-dependent manner and releasing CD-IC form of AIs in response to high relative humidity (95% RH). With 24 h of exposure, stimuli-responsive fibers significantly reduced the populations of foodborne pathogenic bacterial surrogates Escherichia coli (by ∼5 log unit) and Listeria innocua (by ∼5 log unit), as well as fungi Aspergillus fumigatus (by >1 log unit). More importantly, the fibers released more AIs at 95% RH than at 50% RH, which resulted in a higher population reduction of E. coli at 95% RH. Such biodegradable, nontoxic, and multistimuli-responsive antimicrobial fibers have great potential for broad applications as active and smart packaging systems.
Keywords: biotic and abiotic-responsive materials; cellulose nanocrystals; cyclodextrin; electrospinning; enzyme; precision agriculture; sustainable food packaging.