Killing Bacteria With Physics: Imagine The Limitless Applications [Opinion]

This week, NOVA Next illuminated the groundbreaking work of a few researchers who have been killing bacteria in a completely different way. The report couldn't have come soon enough. We have been losing the fight against bacteria. It's been nearly three years since the Inquisitr reported on a grave announcement by the World Health Organization.

"A post-antibiotic era — in which common infections and minor injuries can kill — far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century," the devastating WHO report warned in April of 2014. That followed a 2012 announcement by Dr. Margaret Chan, speaking as the WHO's director-general. Chan warned her colleagues in a keynote address in Copenhagen, Denmark, that the post-antibiotic era was coming and that it would be an end to modern medicine as we know it.

Our antibiotics transformed healthcare, but it was a doomed practice from the start. A mere four years after pharmaceutical companies began mass-producing penicillin in 1943, bacteria began building up resistance to it. In 1945, Sir Alexander Fleming, the accidental discoverer of the antibiotic penicillin, warned the New York Times of the potential of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

"The greatest possibility of evil in self-medication is the use of too-small doses, so that instead of clearing up infection the microbes are educated to resist penicillin," Fleming warned. His warning fell on the deaf ears of a public that yearned for a quick fix to illness and eventually a food industry that saw a way to cut corners in providing healthy lifestyles for our livestock.

Almost a decade ago, a tiny news brief was posted by the American Academy of Pediatrics that stated, "Canadian researchers reported in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine that the risk of harboring methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus is threefold higher among children who took one or more antibiotics one to six months before they were diagnosed with the infection. The number of antibiotics taken was directly linked to the risk of infection, with those who got at least four prescriptions having an 18-fold increased risk for MRSA, the study of U.K. children found."

Janitors killing bacteria from surfaces in the fight against MRSA.
Jose Trevino, right, and Sean Brice, left, were busy killing bacteria on surfaces in a classroom during a 2007 MRSA outbreak. [Image by Jerry Lai/AP Images]

Yet, the prescriptions were still ordered amidst school and work attendance pressures. Antibiotics became parents' first go-to for almost any bacterial infection. Antimicrobials were added to our food. Antibiotics were fed to healthy livestock. Then, in 2015, National Geographic dramatically called an animal in China the "Apocalypse Pig" after Colistin-resistant bacteria was discovered in a pig from an intensive farm near Shanghai. Colistin was a last resort antibiotic. The antibiotic era was just about over, and bacteria had won.

But the curiosity of two scientists in love, and their eventual colleagues, might have changed everything.

NOVA Next explained that since nearly the turn of the century, in southeast Australia, researcher Elena Ivanova has been studying physical surfaces that could repel bacteria before bacteria even had time to settle in. At the same time, Greg and Jolanta Watson were newlyweds sharing a curiosity for the wonders of nature. Before they were married, while on a nature walk, the scientists noticed that cicada bodies decomposed, but their wings didn't. The couple suspected that there must be antimicrobial properties to the wings. Further study found the property wasn't chemical in nature, it was physical.

As NOVA Next explained, the couple in northeastern Australia have been passionately looking to nature for physical surfaces capable of killing bacteria ever since, and others have joined them. In 2004, Ivanova emailed Watson and he clued her in on the antimicrobial nature of insect wings. Watson sent her samples of the cicada wings. Later, after following Watson's suggestion, researchers in Ivanova's lab realized they were working on breakthrough research.

"This is the first reported example of a naturally existing surface with a physical structure that exhibits such effective bactericidal properties," Ivanova wrote at the time.

According to the NOVA report, nanoscale pillars on cicada wings pierced through bacteria, "causing it to spill its contents and die." It began a search for other surfaces capable of killing a variety of types of bacteria, including something capable of killing the the rod-shaped E. coli and the heavily-membraned staph and strep bacteria.

"As soon as you start playing in science, when you've got that curiosity, something always happens," Greg says. Eventually, the focus fell on the nanoscale physical traits of the gecko skin. In 2015, the Watsons teamed with their friend, David Green, to test the bacteria-killing qualities of the gecko skin.

"Bacteria are trying to move and settle on the surface," Green said of the gecko skin. "And they're just getting spiked and skewered by these long hairs."

"Nature is a wonderful problem solving mechanism," Green said having created his first synthetic gecko skin from soft polyvinyl plastic. "And it can be translated directly into technologies."

The synthetic skin was 88 percent effective in killing soft-shelled bacteria and 66 percent effective in killing hard-shelled bacteria. Most importantly though, it prevented the formation of biofilm.

"Once the biofilm is already formed, it's basically hopeless," Ivanova, who has moved on to researching the antibacterial properties of dragonfly wings, explained. "You can't get rid of it. Antibiotics and chemicals don't really affect bacteria which are hidden inside the biofilm."

"On these surfaces, there is no antibacterial chemistry at work, just physics and hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary trial and error copied in contemporary materials," NOVA Next reported.

Assuming that nothing more comes of the discovery that physical structures can kill bacteria than the prevention of biofilm on surfaces, that would eliminate 80 percent of all bacterial infections coming out of hospitals and clinical settings. Yet, this nanotechnology could be used virtually anywhere. As we evolved as a species, many of our surfaces were naturally antibacterial from silver to wood, but in our modern world, biofilm is able to accumulate on nearly everything we touch.

Imagine if doorknobs were made using this nanotechnology. Imagine if we installed these doorknobs in schools and hospitals across the globe. Imagine elevator buttons killing bacteria in moments. Cellphone surfaces. Handrails. Pens. What if the knobs on sinks killed bacteria? What if the handles of our shopping carts were made of an antibacterial surface? What if food processing equipment was made in such a way that it was physically incapable of housing bacteria? Imagine keyboards and touch screens that were as free of biofilm as a gecko's back?

Bacteria killing keyboards could actually exist one day.
The Associated Press reports that the average office has hundreds of times more bacteria than a toilet seat. What if keyboards were capable of killing bacteria on contact? [Image by Frank Franklin II/AP Images]

Imagine if our modern world wasn't so unlike nature in every possible way? Imagine if we were able to deploy the non-sentient wisdom of millions of years of evolution to undo the damage we created in the last century during the antibiotic era. Soon, Green and a fellow researcher, Kenneth Lee from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, will be publishing research about the antibacterial surfaces that could make these visions a reality.

Still, Greg Watson warns, just as Fleming did almost a century ago, one day, bacteria may evolve to resist these physical surfaces too.

"Organisms are clever and evolution is a pretty wonderful strategy for circumventing anything that you're trying to do," Watson says. "But at least it gives you another way."

Perhaps, if these researchers are successful, we will buy ourselves more time in our fight against the super bacteria that we created. And maybe by the time these microbes begin to out-evolve us in this next round, we will have learned a new way to live in harmony with all things in nature, including the bacteria that plagues us. Jolanta Watson told NOVA that scientific research is "becoming so money driven that it's losing its beauty." Perhaps, in this next round, that money driven aspect of research is the superbug that we should start fighting first.

[Featured Image by Janice Carr/AP Images]