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Fighting Superbugs: Biomimetic Nanostructures

Nature is a wonderful thing and scientists have long looked to nature and how it solves problems to guide their own research and discoveries. On Thursday 26th of April, Monash Tech School staff attended a presentation by Professor Elena P. Ivanova discussing her team’s work on developing materials which fight Superbugs. She also noted her own journey from initially working on marine biofilms to working and leading an interdisciplinary team at Swinburne University.

Professor Ivanova’s research builds on the increasing risk caused by superbugs becoming resistant to antibiotics and traditional chemical treatments applied to surgical instruments and implants. After taking us through some rather sobering statistics about superbugs and antibiotic and microbial resistance, we were taken through the experimental journey of Professor Ivanova and her team.

Looking to nature for inspiration led to the investigation of the wings of cicadas and dragonflies given their ability to not carry or allow bacteria to grow. The group discovered that the wings are composed of nano pillared arrays and therefore, do not rely on a combination of physical and chemical properties to combat biofilm build-up. These arrays when studied were shown to have combined their structure, height and distribution to kill by tearing up bacterial cells. As the process is so quick, the bacteria are unable to adapt to this unique defence mechanism and so cannot cluster, grow and develop colonies.

We were taken through a number of different structures, patterns and materials explored by Professor Ivannova and her team as they attempted to replicate this pattern in various materials. The most recent iteration used black silicon to replicate the nanostructures of the insect wings and the results showed it had a similar biocidal effect for gram-negative bacteria but did not damage larger, eukaryotic cells. This last finding is the subject of future research for the team.

The presentation was a fascinating example of science looking to nature for a solution. It also demonstrated the importance of incremental advances and building on successive failures. Finally and as depicted by her final slide it also demonstrated the diverse team, in both skills and geography responsible for undertaking the research. The project saw collaboration from biochemists, engineers and entomologists from Australia, Germany and Spain among others.

written by Ashley Vane Krieken

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