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How dragonfly wings could help build bacteria-busting surgical tools

The billions of “tiny little fingers” sticking out from dragonfly wings could lead to a new era of “smart” surgical tools able to shred bacteria and reduce antibiotic use, according to Brisbane researchers.

Thinner than a strand of hair, the dragonfly wings have the ability to tear bacteria apart thanks to more than 10 billion nanostructures, Queensland researcher Dr Annalena Wolff said.

“If bacteria lands on a dragonfly wing, what happens is they attach themselves to these little fingers and then realise that they don’t want to stay where they are,” she said.

“The bacteria try to move away (but) because they have glued themselves into place, they literally tear themselves apart.”

Fellow researcher and biomedical engineer Dr Chaturanga Bandara approached the physicist to find a way to see these delicate nanostructures at work after ordinary microscopes kept burning the biological material.

Up for the challenge, Dr Wolff found a new way to operate a microscope, ending up with a two-metre wide and two-metre tall machine, which used electrons and ions instead of light to focus and scan across a delicate sample, without burning it.

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The scan is recorded in real-time and creates an artificial image of the object.

“We were able to see how the nanostructures killed the bacteria for the first time,” Dr Wolff said.

“Instead of looking at the sample surface I have cut it up and was then able to create a 3D image of it.

“It works a bit like a laser cutter, just that I don’t use a laser, I use ions to cut and I virtually removed atom by atom of the sample to get to the stage where I needed to be.”

Dr Wolff said the dragonfly discovery could help pave the way for a new era of “smart materials”, especially in the field of medicine where drug-resistant bacteria was a big problem.

“There are a lot of different research groups who are working on solving that problem, how to kill bacteria without having to use drugs or antibiotics,” she said.

“Now that we can see how they (dragonfly wings) kill bacteria, we can recreate them.

"We were able to find that nature has a trick up its sleeve.

“Imagine if we could create hospital surfaces or surgical equipment that has the same bacteria-busting properties, then we would need less antibiotics and that might just help us to overcome the problem of drug-resistant bacteria.”

Dr Wolff said the same microscopes used for detecting the nanostructures could also be used to help design a range of bacteria-busting tools.

“The microscopes are really powerful so we can look at the tiniest structures, but we can also (use the microscope to) build them, it is a really versatile tool,” she said.

“For example, (we could) rebuild the dragonfly wing 'fingers' using different materials or build robots so small that you could fit 64 billion of them in a single raindrop.

“You are only limited by your imagination.”