Cicada wings inspire new ideas for antibacterial products

EarthzineWould You Believe?

It’s been a noisy summer along parts of the eastern US where 17-year periodical cicadas have emerged in large numbers to breed.  Most of them should be gone by early to mid July. If you don’t already, here’s another reason to love cicadas. A 2013 study published in Biophysical Journal has found that cicada wings are covered with intricate nanopillar-shaped structures that are capable of killing bacteria through physical and not chemical means. This nanotechnology research is starting to inspire new ideas for environmentally-friendly antibacterial products.

Scientists have discovered that the wing surface of the Clanger cicada (Psaltoda claripennis) isn’t flat. Instead, it is covered with thousands of pillars that are about 200 nanometers tall (a nanometer is a billion times smaller than a meter). When certain types of disease causing bacteria land on a cicada’s wing, they are killed by the nanopillars.

An international team of scientists just completed a study of Clanger cicada wings and found that they killed bacteria through physical and not chemical means. According to their model, when a bacteria lands on the nanopillars—the pillars are much smaller than bacterial cells—the bacterial membrane stretches into the spaces in between the pillars then, ruptures.

A bacteria cell on the surface of a cicada wing. Image appears courtesy of Swinburne University of Technology.