Why are scientists talking about cicadas and COVID-19?

Limiting the spread with these tiny spikes.

Photo by Dale Staton on Unsplash

Cicada wings have microscopic spikes that literally pierce bacterial cells, skewering them like kebabs.

Both sides of the cicada’s wings are covered in these spikes and extremely deadly to Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which is a bacteria known to be resistant to antibiotics and is associated with serious hospital-acquired infections. This same mechanism would likely be effective against other strains of bacteria and possibly viruses like COVID-19!

Ouch! My hospital room is covered in spikes!

The cicada’s wings gave the scientists an idea. If we could copy the spiked texture of the wings on critical hospital surfaces, we could stop the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria before they have a chance to infect the body. The spikes that prevent bacteria from settling on the surface of the wings would also prevent bacteria from growing on hospital surfaces.

How do you make a micro-spiked surface?

The required density of spikes and patterns necessary will depend on the target application and microbe. There are pros and cons to the different methods that have been commercially attempted.

Graphene

When carbon atoms are arranged in a single-layer hexagonal pattern, they create one of the strongest materials known to man — graphene. Graphene is gaining popularity in everything from tissue engineering to solar cells.

Titanium

The price of titanium, at ~$0.03/gram ($30/kg), is far less than the cost of graphene, which makes it a much more attractive material to make the micro-spiked surface.

Polymer Plastic

Scientists at a company called Sharklet took a different approach, inspired by sharks. A shark’s skin doesn’t have micro-spikes like the cicada’s wings but, they use a micro-diamond pattern to prevent bacteria from sticking to it.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

But, will this work for viruses like COVID-19?

Viruses are more than 100x smaller than bacteria, meaning the spikes needed to destroy a virus would need to be much smaller as well. But, scientists in Spain and scientists in Australia think it can be done.

Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

Hope for the future

The reality is that the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria continues to grow and viruses like COVID-19 are a long-term problem. Adding to the complexity, COVID-19 can live on a surface for up to 24 hrs, depending on the material. Whereas, certain bacteria, such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, can live on the surface for months.

Engineer, Mad Scientist, and Business Enthusiast (Keep in touch: annamensch4@gmail.com)

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