Plant-Inspired Medicine: It’s Slippery and Sterile

Bacterial defense inspired by meat-eating plants

Many people think of bacteria as little round or rod-shaped swimmies, free-floating like plankton in the sea. But that’s not true of most bacteria in nature. Much of the time, they exist in dense, carbohydrate-rich colonies called biofilms. From the gunk inside your pipes to the plaque on your teeth, these bacterial goop fortresses are very common, and very tough.

Antibiotics, heck, even bleach, have a hard time breaking through biofilms. And some of the dangerous bacteria that people fall victim to in hospitals use these biofilms to persist on tables, equipment and other surfaces.

A Harvard group has developed a way to line those surfaces with a durable, safe material that is so slippery that even ice can’t grow on it. It’s called SLIPS, appropriately, because scientists will do anything to nail down a cool acronym. It’s inspired by the surface of the carnivorous pitcher plant, a frictionless micro-structure that makes its insect prey fall in and never come out. Same for the bacteria. It’s so slippery that even the toughest microbes can’t grow on it.

Check out more of this nature-inspiring-technology story at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

(pitcher plant illustration by SpaceHunterZorg)

While it’s incredible that we (much less nature!) can produce a surface on which even microbes can’t hang on, it’s also something I think should be used relatively sparingly. The spread of Staph and other bacteria in our hospitals is obviously a great application. 

However, bacteria are pretty important to us, especially in the development of our immune system. I’m not sure widespread use of SLIPS would be good in the long run. 

How does everybody else feel about it?