Bacteria are a nasty bunch, creating infections from the common to the horrific. Not only that, but they lurk pretty much everywhere. Now they may have met their match in a film created by Harvard scientists that is so slippery, it fools bacteria into thinking they can't attach there and grow. Major score for science!
So, where do killer plants come in? Well, the slippery substance that coats the lip of the pitcher plant causing bugs to go tumbling in is the key. Researchers at Harvard studied and mimicked the phenomenon. We've taken a look at it before; the Harvard scientists called it SLIPS, short for slippery liquid-infused porous surfaces.
After having studied SLIPS for a variety of applications, the team began looking at bacteria. They theorized that free-floating bacteria might be put off by the super slick surfaces because they wouldn't be able to attach, grow and form their own colonies of biofilm. The Harvard scientists reported that SLIPS reduced the formation of three common and deadly bacterial biofilms — including E. coli by 96 to 99 percent over seven days.
If you are wondering about antibacterial or antiseptics we spray on surfaces, it turns out they can be only temporary. So called "zombie bacteria" can come back from the dead if only a few dormant cells remain. In testing, that 96 to 99 percent reduction is 35 times more than what has been the next best option — surfaces treated with polyethylene glycol.
Researchers describe this result as state-of-the-art technology because no other surface can maintain its material coating without becoming toxic. Think of your countertop constantly soaked with your antibacterial spray — you wouldn't want to put your chicken or fruits and veggies on that.
With SLIPS however there isn't the toxicity. It's durable, being able to stay submerged in salty water for a week and remain intact; it can also withstand acids and UV radiation.
What's really exciting is the Harvard team believes the SLIPS technology (which can heal itself) can work inside the human body. This makes it perfect for coating devices like pacemakers and other implanted materials such as artificial hips, knees and implantable rods. The risk of post-op infection could drop dramatically.
The Harvard team recently published their research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and will be continuing their research into how bacteria behave with the SLIPS technology (such as do they slip and slide off the surface or do they attach but fail to thrive), along with a myriad of other valuable commercial applications a super slippery surface could provide (such as the anti-graffiti spray demoed below).
Given the recent news that bacteria are growing increasingly resistant to our usual antibiotics and antiseptics, here's hoping Harvard makes this happen. Anyone who's recently been inside a hospital, doctor's office or kid's classroom will thank them, surely.