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Design and Mechanistic Understanding of Zein Nanocomposite Films and Their Implementation in an Amperometric Biosensor for Detection of Gliadin

posted on 10.12.2019 by Tahrima Binte Rouf

Zein is a major storage protein of corn, with unique amphiphilic film forming properties. It is insoluble in water, but soluble in 70% ethanol and acetic acid, and has been declared ‘generally recognized as safe’ (GRAS) by the FDA. Due to new advances in food nanotechnology, zein is being investigated for various applications such as biodegradable packaging, oral delivery of proteins and peptides, scaffold for tissue engineering, as well as biodegradable sensor platforms. The time consuming and highly complicated methods for toxin and allergen analysis in the food industry necessitates the need for a rapid, selective, compact and easy-to-use method of detection for analytes. In the scope of this dissertation, we investigated the feasibility of functional zein nanocomposite films and formation of a zein nanocomposite sensor assembly for rapid and highly selective electrochemical measurements of food toxins and allergens. Fabrication of a zein based electrochemical amperometric sensor assembly was studied, first through the comparison of various zein film characteristics changes with the application of Laponite®, graphene oxide and carbon nanotube nanoparticles, followed by a proof-of-concept study by detecting the gluten allergen protein gliadin.

To mechanistically study the functional zein nanocomposite films, Laponite®, a silica nanoparticle, was added in the presence of 70% ethanol solvent and oleic acid plasticizer. The films were studied using various characterization techniques like transmission electron microscopy (TEM), Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), atomic force microscopy (AFM), thermogravimetric analysis (TGA), differential scanning calorimetry (DSC), water contact angle measurements etc. Through Si-N bond formation between Laponite® and zein, fabricated zein nanocomposite films showed increase in surface hydrophobicity, water vapor barrier properties, tensile strength and Young’s modulus. Graphene oxide (GO), a carbon nanoparticle, was also incorporated into zein through the solvent casting process. Uniform dispersion of GO nanoparticles within zein matrix were confirmed up to 1% GO loading, and covalent and hydrogen bonding mechanisms were proposed. Similar to zein-Laponite® (Z-LAP) nanocomposites, zein-GO (Z-GO) showed increase in hydrophobic tendencies, rougher surface and a 300% improvement in Young’s modulus and 180% improvement in tensile strength at only 3% GO loading. Both nanoparticles increased tensile strength, thermal stability and water vapor barrier property of the films, indicating a potential for food packaging as an alternative application for the nanocomposite films.

Finally, the research focused on the fabrication of an electrochemical amperometric sensor, capable of detecting the protein gliadin, which is responsible for the allergic reaction with people having celiac disease. Novel biodegradable coatings made from zein nanocomposites: zein-graphene oxide, zein-Laponite® and zein-multiwalled carbon nanotubes (Z-CNT) using drop casting technique were tested for fabricating the electrochemical sensors using cyclic voltammetry (CV), electrochemical impedance spectroscopy (EIS) and square wave voltammetry (SWV) techniques. As Z-CNT produced the strongest signals compared to other nanomaterials, the active tip of the electrochemical sensor was functionalized through a sequence of layer by layer deposition of Z-CNT nanocomposite, antibody and target analyte. Here, Z-CNT acts as a natural linker molecule with large number of functional groups, that causes immobilization of capture antibody and target, to ensure high sensor performance. Both CV curves and SWV curves indicated successful sequential immobilization of gliadin antibody onto the Z-CNT coated electrode. The Z-CNT biosensor was successfully able to give CV signals for gliadin toxins for as low as 0.5 ppm and was highly specific for gliadin in the presence of other interfering molecules, and remained stable over a 30-day period. The low-cost, thin, conductive zein films offered a promising alternative for protein immobilization platforms used in sensors and can be extended to other matrices in biosensors as well as other functional film applications


USDA Hatch funds and Scholle Endowment


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy


Food Science

Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Jozef Kokini

Additional Committee Member 2

Gudrun Schmidt

Additional Committee Member 3

Lia Stanciu

Additional Committee Member 4

Yuan Yao

Additional Committee Member 5

Carlos Corvalan