Dragonfly wings inspire this Colombian’s anti-germ materials
For decades, households have sprayed or wiped surfaces to kill bacteria – but Colombian scientist Sandra Arias studies smart materials that use nothing more than their microscopic, spiky texture to kill bacteria.
Scientists had previously noticed that the wings of cicadas and dragonflies had a surface that, on a microscopic scale, was capable of naturally disrupting bacterial cells.
Arias has developed its own surface bristling with bacterial cellulose hydrogels, which are commonly used in biomedical settings like dressings and artificial skin: spikes one millionth of a meter long have been shown to break Gram bacteria. positive (the family that contains Staphylococcus aureus) , but not mammalian cells like those found in humans.
“My results demonstrated a simple, scalable and sustainable strategy for imparting bactericidal properties to hydrogels by changing only its texture and without using antimicrobials,” she said.
Arias says she sees these hydrogels as a springboard to use similar structures invisible to the naked eye to develop materials capable of killing bacteria in the same way.
“My work on cellulose demonstrates a simple and economical way to impart bactericidal activity to the material by altering its surface texture at the nanoscale,” she said. “I believe a similar strategy can be applied to textiles, food packaging and a variety of other materials of industrial and clinical importance that require bactericidal properties.”
From coffee to cells
Arias, who is now a postdoctoral associate at Cornell University, doesn’t come from a long line of scientists, in fact, she was the first in her family to go to college.
“I grew up on a small coffee farm in Aguadas, Colombia, where my family still grows coffee,” she said. “As a child, I always presented myself as a scientist, wearing a white coat and working in a laboratory.
Arias says she was fortunate that her parents were “relentless role models of work ethic and excellence” and that she owed most of her career advancement to mentors who were ready to support and support her. invest in it at different stages of its career.
“In particular, as an undergraduate student at the University of Antioquia, I had the opportunity to work on transnational research projects which contributed to my academic record and my desire to pursue a PhD She said.
In 2020, while working on a potentially life-saving project, Arias faced personal tragedy.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has affected me deeply on a personal level,” she said, “My parents, siblings and I were meeting for my doctorate in May at the University of Illinois , having saved and anticipated this trip for several years. ”
But not only was the trip canceled, but her father fell ill and died in June 2020.
“I couldn’t make it to Colombia to see it for the last time,” she said, adding that the changes to the US visa restriction for international students announced at different times of the year were an additional source of stress and uncertainty.
Arias is far from the only Colombian to make technological advances at the cellular level. Marlene Jimenez and Carlos Velez from the University of Antioquia in Medellin, Colombia, developed a technique to turn stem cells found in umbilical cord tissue into cholinergic neurons – a type of brain cell – in just a few days.
The husband and wife team then used these cells to observe Alzheimer’s precursor molecules in cells taken from newborns – a boon for research into the early stages of a disease that is only beginning to show. symptoms only when people are in their forties.