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Regular readers will be well aware of the limited progress made to date on one of the greatest challenges confronting human science. That is, duplicating the miraculously hairy, sticky feet of geckos. But now, a team of top Californian biomimetics boffins believe they have made a breakthrough.

"With our gecko adhesive," says Ron Fearing of UC Berkeley, "we have been able to create the first material that is adhesive and yet cleans itself a little bit with every contact."

The self-cleaning properties of geckoes' feet are, of course, well known - allowing the nimble squamatan to gambol about freely on dirt, and yet still have feet sufficiently sticky to then race up a wall and across a ceiling. The creatures' fiendishly cunning nanohair toes, indeed, allow them to maintain a grip even on a ceiling made from smooth glass, of the type said to be maintained by many large organisations as a means of evading feminine dominance.

Fearing said that his crew of Berkeley boffins built on the work of Oregon biology prof Kellar Autumn, described as "one of the nation's leading experts on gecko biomechanics". Allied with the globally renowned lizard foot-coiffure authority, the Californian engineers fashioned a gecko-tastic glue from stiff-polymer microfibres. The miracle squamato-gunge, contaminated with microspheres representing dirt, shed the grubbiness simulant every time it stuck to something - while still sticking itself firmly.

"This new material likes to adhere to surfaces, but it does not like to collect dirt particles," said Jongho Lee, lead author on the new research. "We were able to recover one-third of the shear adhesion strength of clean samples after multiple steps."

However, it seems that the artificial squamatoid toe-jam can't yet deal with larger particles of dirt in the way that the genuine article can. And there was no word on the many other important gecko-related technologies thought by leading boffins to be just around the corner, including Casimir-levitation hover galleons, functioning spiderman suits and paper-thin bulletproof vests. But the Berkeley crew aren't mere heads-in-the-clouds blue sky thinkers, no sir. They have their feet glued firmly (yet releasably) to the glass ceiling of things you didn't even know you needed.

"It brings us closer to [making] robots ... able to scamper up walls and across ceilings," said Fearing, "perhaps in the search for survivors after a disaster."

Hopefully not a disaster caused, for instance, by overpasses, cliffs, tunnels or buildings collapsing under an unforeseen traffic jam of inverted squamatan-effects vehicles stuck to their faces or undersides.

Meanwhile, rival boffins also located in California - no doubt purely coincidentally - offer a scientific bitchslap to the entire philosophy of gecko mimicry, pushing instead their preferred electrostickiness technology.

The race to perfect the first serviceable spiderman boots, vehicles etc. will no doubt be a long one. The new Berkeley research was published online yesterday by the American Chemical Society peer-reviewed journal Langmuir. ®

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