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Bacteria-Busting Surface

The age of chemical warfare against bacteria could soon end. Biologist Kim Lewis of Northeastern University and chemist Alexander Klibanov of MIT teamed up to create an environmentally friendly surface that stays sterile. The surface, which can be applied to virtually any material-including glass, metal, plastic or wood-consists of microscopic polymer bristles. Any bacterium landing on the surface is killed; the polymer spikes poke holes in the microbe’s membrane, and the cell’s contents squirt out. Although chemical biocides can create resistant bacteria, Lewis and Klibanov’s technique attacks such a fundamental constituent of bacteria-the membrane-that species are unlikely to develop a defense against it. The researchers plan to start a company or partner with an existing one to develop the material. They foresee applications ranging from toys to public telephones to drinking-water pipes.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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