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Nanotextured Steel Skewers Bacteria with Microscopic Spikes

Don't look now, but you're surrounded by bacteria. It's just a fact of life. So is the fact that some of them want to get you sick. If only you could build a barbed-wire fence around everything you wanted to keep bacteria-free. Well, pretty soon, you might be able to. Nanotextured steel might transform everything from deli counters to medical implants.

Close-up image shows an untreated stainless steel sample (right), and a sample that has been electrochemically treated to create a nanotextured surface. The sample was prepared by using a potentiostat in Professor Preet Singh's laboratory at Georgia Tech.

Cutting Bacteria Down

You may have heard of antibacterial steel before, but that usually consists of an antibacterial chemical agent applied to the steel as a film. It can erode over time, and it can even produce resistant bacteria that can grow despite the treatment. That's not what nanotextured steel is.

After using an electrochemical etching process on a common stainless steel alloy, researchers discovered the resulting substance killed bacteria on contact. They can't definitively say how it works yet, but the researchers believe the bacteria are killed by the metal's tiny spikes and sharp edges. Yes, it's basically a spiked pit for bacteria, and that's an antibiotic treatment that the little bugs won't be able to evolve their way out of. So far, it's proven itself effective against both E. coli and staph infections, two bacteria of very different sizes.

Postdoctoral Fellows Won Tae Choi and Yeongseon Jang demonstrate how the growth of bacterial colonies on agar plates was used to quantify the effect of the nanotextured surface on bacterial adhesion.

Must Be This Tall to Touch This Steel

Nanotextured steel will never lose its bug-cutting power, and it won't contribute to the next generation of super bugs. But the most exciting news might be that its devastating effect on bacteria-sized creatures doesn't extend to other animals. Mammal cells appear to be unaffected by the substance, which is important if it's going to be used to create medical implants. It could also be used to create better, cleaner food-processing equipment.

What makes this extra incredible is the fact that the researchers were as surprised as anyone else to discover this effect. Their initial goal was to create a nanotextured steel that would repel water. But because it's relatively simple to create the substance, it's really just a matter of a little more testing before it can become a must-have for kitchens and doctor's offices everywhere.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas January 22, 2018

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