Some insect wings found to have natural antibiotics

Claudine Zap
March 7, 2013

Cicadas can’t exactly carry around Purell to keep their wings clean. But scientists have discovered that the locustlike insects have something even better: wings that naturally kill some bacteria on contact.

The clanger cicada turns out to be something of a clean freak. The journal Nature reports that it keeps some bacteria away through the structure of its bumpy wings: teeny tiny spikes that kill bacteria by ripping them apart.

Here’s how it works: The insect’s wings are covered by a hexagonal layer of nanopillars—the spikes. When bacteria land on the wing’s surface, they stick to the spikes and stretch into the crevices between them. If the bacteria are soft enough, the strain is too great and they tear. (This system doesn’t work on bacteria with more rigid membranes).

According to Nature, this is one of the first natural surfaces to have such a power—a power that could be used for even more good.

Scientists are suggesting that the findings could be potentially used to keep public surfaces clean, like handrails.

Chemical engineer Anne-Marie Kietzig at McGill University in Montreal, who was not involved in the study, told Nature, “This would provide a passive bacteria-killing surface,” adding that it “does not require active agents like detergents, which are often environmentally harmful.”