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Scientists at an Australian university have grown eye cells on Cicadas' wings, after noticing that the nano-structures on that part of the insects' bodies have anti-bacterial properties.

The James Cook University researchers chose retinal cells as their test case because, as they said to AAP, these cells “won't grow just anywhere. You have to have a certain surface for them to be happy.”

The success of the retinal cell experiment comes a decade after Dr Gregory Watson and his wife, Dr Jolanta Watson, noticed how cicada wings outlasted the bodies of the dead insects.

“We'd noticed that the wings of the dead insects on the ground were not consumed or contaminated in the same manner as their bodies,” he says in this statement from the university.

“As bacteria play such an important role in decomposition, we thought there may be something responsible for this effect.”

Looking at the wings through an atomic force microscope, the researchers observed something else: “we measured very little adhesion between the Cicada wings and natural contaminants such as soil fragments and pollens,” Dr Watson said.

It took an international team of biophysicists to explain the mechanism by which the Cicada wings kill bacteria: their surface has nano-pillars on a scale similar to the size of bacteria. When a bacterial cell settles on the wings, it's stretched between the nanopillars until its surface membrane breaks.

While it only works on bacteria with the right level of membrane rigidity, it's the first time a surface has been found that can destroy bacteria solely through its physical structure – an attractive proposition in a world bedevilled by the rise of “superbugs”.

Scientific American has more on the nano-structures, with videos, here. ®

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