Human eye cells grown on cicada wings

By AAP with Amy Middleton 27 March 2013
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Cicada wings can kill bacteria and promote cell-growth, new research has revealed.

HUMAN EYE CELLS HAVE been successfully grown on the wings of cicadas, after it was discovered that the wing’s surface kills bacteria and boosts cell growth.

Dr Greg Watson, a researcher at James Cook University in Cairns, is part of an international team devising a detailed model of how this defence system works.

It is the first time scientists have found that features of a natural surface, rather than chemicals, kill bacteria.

How cicada wings kill bacteria

Greg began studying cicadas after noticing, while out on a walk more than a decade ago, that their wings took much longer to decompose than their bodies.

“While collecting our cicadas, 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 said.

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

Using a special kind of microscope, he found that bacteria were torn apart when they came into contact with the wings.

Based on his findings, published recently in the science journal Nature, Greg also describes the wings as “self-cleaning”, as soil and other sediments don’t stick to their surface.

Cicada wings could aid eye surgery

Prior to this research, Greg and associates from the Queensland Eye Institute were able to grow human eye cells on the cicada wings.

“Retinal cells don’t just grow on anything. You have to have a certain surface for them to be happy,” says Greg. “[The wings are] an unfavourable size to the bacteria but favourable for cells, so that’s a good thing.”

The fact that the wings have thin membranes, and are transparent and anti-reflective, also helped.

Greg says eye cells could one day be grown on a replicated version of the cicada wings to assist with eye surgery.

“Replicas of insect wings could also be used to kill bacteria on a whole variety of surfaces, from industrial piping to medical implants.”

Greg and his wife, Dr Jolanta Watson, who also contributed to the research, have teamed up with scientists from the University of Queensland to try to replicate the cicada wing structure.

The research examined around 20 species of cicada. More than 200 species have been identified in Australia, most of which are found in the northern states.