Insect wings tear apart bacteria, may hold key to fighting superbugs

MELBOURNE, Australia — Before you hit that bug with your fly swatter, hold up! Scientists say that insect may hold the key to killing drug-resistant germs. A new study finds the microscopic material that makes up insect wings have special properties which destroy bacteria.

The report in Nature Reviews Microbiology says cicada and dragonfly wings are natural bacteria killers. Their wings are covered in tiny nanopillars which stretch, slice, and tear germs apart. Instead of using medications, this material physically ruptures the cell membranes of bacteria which eventually kills them.

Nanopillars on a dragonfly’s wing, magnified 20,000 times. (Credit: RMIT University)

“Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is one of the greatest threats to global health and routine treatment of infection is becoming increasingly difficult,” Professor Elena Ivanova of Australia’s RMIT University says in a release. “When we look to nature for ideas, we find insects have evolved highly effective anti-bacterial systems.”

Making bug-inspired surfaces

Researchers are now working on new anti-bacterial surfaces, inspired by these bug nanopillars. They are engineering sheets and wires using nanoshapes which damage germs just like a dragonfly wing. The study is the first to break down the different ways these surfaces use mechanical force against cell membranes. Ivanova says these man-made germ killers have a long way to go before they catch up with their insect inspirations.

Golden staph bacteria being ruptured by black silicon nanoneedles, an engineered surface and magnified 30,000 times. (Credit: RMIT University)

“Our synthetic biomimetic nanostructures vary substantially in their anti-bacterial performance and it’s not always clear why,” RMIT University’s distinguished professor explains. “We have also struggled to work out the optimal shape and dimensions of a particular nanopattern, to maximize its lethal power.”

The study adds, when examining dragonflies even further, some species have better bacteria-killing wings than others.

“When we examine the wings at the nanoscale, we see differences in the density, height and diameter of the nanopillars that cover the surfaces of these wings, so we know that getting the nanostructures right is key,” says Ivanova.

Destroying superbugs may be expensive

Researchers say one of the key challenges they face is making nanostructure surfaces which are inexpensive so they can be widely distributed to the public and medical facilities. Luckily, the report says nanofabrication technology is advancing, providing hope that more anti-bacterial surfaces are on the horizon.

Ivanova adds finding a way to avoid using drugs against antibiotic-resistant infections is crucial. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates over 2.8 million people in the United States suffer a drug-resistant infection each year. More than 700,000 people die worldwide due to these bacterial strains.

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