Knock on Wood

Biomedical Science researches the antimicrobial effects of larch wood

Wood has germ-reducing properties, stimulates the human immune system and has a positive effect on the psyche. This has now been proven by numerous studies, among others, from the University of British Columbia and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. The logical conclusion: use wood where its effect also promises the greatest benefit, namely in health care and nursing institutions. The extent to which the properties of wood, especially of larch wood, are actually capable of eliminating pathogens is being researched in a joint project by FH Campus Wien and FH Salzburg.


Wood instead of plastic

In hygienic-sensitive areas such as in health care and nursing institutions, germ reduction is mandatory. Increased hygiene requirements and the resulting strict regulations and guidelines have led to the knowledge of the health-promoting characteristics of wood being forgotten. Since the introduction of plastic cutting surfaces made in the meat processing industry in the 1970s, criticism of the supposedly poorer hygienic properties of wood has increased. However, there are already numerous studies that refute this criticism. Important criteria such as the cutting direction or the moisture content, which were given little or no attention in most studies, are actually significant factors for objectively assessing the antimicrobial properties of the natural material. Another major advantage is the savings in costs for disinfectants. Wood is once again winning back a market share over plastic as a renewable material for interior design and furniture. The reputation of wood is thus better than we previously thought. The increased use of natural materials is conceivable for nursing stations, obstetrics and palliative care units. One example is the interior design of the residential care home in Liesing completed in 2012. 

Testing larch wood

Using microbiological test methods, the degree programs Biomedical Science at FH Campus Wien and Forest Products Technology & Timber Construction at FH Salzburg at the Kuchl Campus are studying the antimicrobial effect of larch wood in a joint research project. The study is examining both wood cubes and shavings of heartwood and sapwood, because these contain different concentrations of secondary phytochemicals. The study started with two types of multi-resistant germs, namely Klebsiella pneumoniae (K. pneumoniae) and the dreaded methicillin-resistant hospital pathogen Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). To quantify the bacteria, wooden cubes and shavings were inoculated with a standardized bacterial suspension. The measurement points were zero, three and 24 hours. The samples were incubated at room temperature. The results of the microbiological tests showed that the bacterial count decreased more rapidly on sapwood than heartwood and that the bacterial count decreased more rapidly on wooden cubes than on wood shavings. The test germ, Klebsiella pneumonia, was significantly reduced after just three hours. In the case of MRSA, bacterial growth was stopped after just 24 hours. The sample material was not treated with either cleaning agents or alcohols, so as not to affect the naturally occurring antimicrobial effect of the wood. 

Success formula: initial funding, interdisciplinary and sustainability

Since the university of applied sciences sector lacks the basic funding for the research, projects are dependent on third-party funds or initial funding by the universities themself. The latter supports scientific staff with financial and/or material resources when establishing new research and development projects. “Funding from FH Campus Wien as well as FH Salzburg made this research project possible and it will serve as a basis for further projects. The multidisciplinary approach we follow was decisive for the reliability of the data obtained. Given our efforts, we are pleased that our studies with wood, a sustainable material, have been so successful and that our work has found recognition in an international publication,” said Christine Schnabl, Head of Degree Program Biomedical Science and Project Manager. Alexander Petutschnigg, Head of Degree Program Forest Products Technology & Timber Construction and Project Manager at FH Salzburg refers to the benefits of the partnership: “This research addresses a key topic in a multidisciplinary field of knowledge. The better understanding and knowledge of the various properties of wood as a natural material will lead to new applications that have not yet been widely considered.“As part of the initial funding, students at FH Campus Wien wrote their Bachelor theses on the subject. The research group and the partnership with FH Salzburg should answer further questions in the future related to larch wood, which is widely used in Austria. The current results were published in the prestigious “European Journal of Wood and Wood-Products”. The timber industry is also already aware of this project and innovation-check projects have already started.