Medical Biomimicry

Sharklet on top; shark skin on bottom

I found Marc Swackhamer’s lecture on biomimicry very interesting and contained many great examples of design solutions that were solved with the use of mimicking nature. This prompted me to look into a material that I had heard about but had not yet fully understood. Sharklet, a unique product line of adhesives and plastics with a patterned surface, mimics the skin of the shark and contains the ability to inhibit the growth of bacteria due to the microscopic patterns embedded within its surface. The special pattern was originally developed as a way to counter the growth of algae on the hulls naval ships and mimicked the microscopic patterns of a shark’s skin which is naturally algae-resistant. The shift to the medical field was made when scientists realized that algae and bacteria behaved in similar ways and that the same pattern can be used to inhibit the growth of bacteria in hospital settings which were prone to be the breeding grounds of superbugs such as MRSA.

Bacterial accumulation on smooth surfaces (top) versus Sharklet (bottom)

The diamond pattern on the Sharklet can come in a number of forms such as in adhesives or embedded within medical devices such as catheters to prevent infections. The pattern works by disrupting the growth of bacteria colonies in ways that a perfectly smooth surface does not; simply put, surfaces covered by the Sharklet film just aren’t the ideal places for bacteria to congregate and form colonies. So by having less bacteria in general there is a lesser chance of hospital guests and patients of getting potentially deadly bacterial infections such as MRSA. The best part is that the inhibition of bacteria is done naturally through the surface pattern and does not rely on chemical cleaners to disinfect the surface.

I think that Sharklet is an excellent example of biomimicry and is used to address a severe problem that needs to be dealt with. I think that it is a creative example of taking a natural design that is effective in one aspect and translating that idea to find other successful uses. I also believe that as designers we should keep our minds open to solve other problems beyond those of the architectural realm and keep our eyes open to design opportunities in other fields as well.

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