Sometimes the best solutions to our problems are found in the wildlife around us.

“Nature is a great hunting ground for ideas,” says Dennis LaJeunesse, Ph.D., associate professor of nanoscience in the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, a collaborative program of N.C. A&T State University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He’s also associate professor of biology at UNCG.

For example, the cuticle, or skin, of many insects contains tiny structures that can rupture dangerous bacteria and fungi.

Think of a plastic door mat with stiff, piercing bristles, except 1 million to 10 million times smaller. Not very welcoming to a microbe.

These structures are nanoscale, typically 100 to 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, but they could have big applications in biomedical devices, biosensors, textiles, fibers and other industrial materials.

Interesting effects in insect structures

“We can think big and imagine that these types of surfaces can be used to stem microbial infection, especially in medical apparatuses such as catheters, pumps and instruments that are difficult to clean,” LaJeunesse says.

He and his students are trying to better understand these insect nanostructures, especially the cone-shaped patterns found on cicada and dragonfly wings, and to fabricate similar ones in the laboratory.

“These have been found by others to have interesting optical effects and anti-wetting properties,” LaJeunesse says. “Our group and an Australian group have found that these surfaces also kill microbes. Our recent work is demonstrating that these surfaces can be tuned to repel, kill or retard fungi and other microbes such as bacteria. It is complicated; we are just beginning to determine the key factors of this process – cell adhesion, cell rigidity, surface properties.”

One of his doctoral students, Kyle Nowlin of Greensboro, recently won a national student contest for his image of a nanostructured surface he created in the lab, simulating the pattern of sharp cones found on a cicada wing.

He persevered

His image was judged the best of 32 submitted by 10 students from universities across the country. The EnvisioNano contest was sponsored by the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a federal consortium that promotes nanotech research, development and commercialization.

Nowlin made several attempts over a year before he finally created the nanostructure through colloidal lithography, a masking and etching process, and generated a crisp image of it using a focused ion beam scanning electron microscope.

“He persevered,” LaJeunesse says. “He never gave up. Kyle is an outstanding young scientist, and this whole project would not be where it is today without his hard work.”

LaJeunesse says multiple invention disclosures for the nanostructure research have been submitted to UNCG for potential patent protection, and he wants to pursue possible commercial applications with bioscience companies in the region.

Research in his lab has been supported by funding from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, including most recently a $100,000 Biotechnology Research Grant awarded in 2013.

“The Center’s funding has been absolutely essential for this work,” LaJeunesse says. “Without it, nothing would have been possible. I am grateful for all of the Center’s help.”

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