Science 3 min read

Bacteria's Secret to Survival can be Used to Make Indestructible Materials

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Clothes, shoes, and other everyday items we use are subject to the inevitable wear and tear process. We have to use indestructible materials to make them last longer.

Unfortunately, there’s not any that can fit the requirements like weight and design freedom.

We grow out of clothes, sometimes because of our dietary habits in which sugar is usually singled out as a primary culprit.

But maybe, sugar can help us make durable clothes, and other items as a group of scientists had discovered.

Sweet Indestructible Materials

Researchers at the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Medicine studied a type of single-celled organisms and found the secret behind their survival.

Extremophiles are bacteria that live in the most extreme environments from acidic and alkaline, too hot and frigid, and basically anywhere where life seems the least plausible to thrive.

The UVA team investigated a type of extremophiles called Sulfolobus islandicus. These hardy microorganisms have what scientists call pili, an appendage used for many functions. Up to 2 µm in length, bacterial pili (singular: pilus) are protein filaments that extend from the surface of the membrane.

Now, here’s how we can take a page out of nature’s book to make indestructible materials.

The team tried to break these extracellular appendages apart from the Sulfolobus bacteria for further investigation. But no matter what they do, like exposing the pili to harsh environments, they couldn’t tear it apart. The pili just resisted everything the researchers threw it in, be it boiling in sodium or other tricks.

“We were unable to take these things apart in boiling detergent. They just remained absolutely intact,” said Edward H. Egelman of UVA’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics. “So we then tried much harsher treatments, including boiling them in lye, which is sodium hydroxide. Nope.”

Egelman, recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and his team threw in the towel, then grabbed their cryo-electron microscope (cryo-EM), allowing them to get down to the atomic bottom of the pili.

Using the cryo-EM, they managed to get a submicroscopic view into the structure of pili filaments, and the findings were “shocking.”

“There’s just a huge amount of sugar covering the entire surface of these filaments in a way that has never been seen before,” Egelman explains. “These bugs have devised a way to just use massive amounts of sugar to cover these filaments and make them resistant to the incredible extremes of the environment in which they live.”

Per the study, these protein filaments are usually very sensitive to harsh external conditions like heat and acid. But coated in sugar, the pili become almost indestructible.

According to Egelman, there’s a lot of previous evidence suggesting that small amounts of sugar can, for instance, increase the stability of drugs.

But this is the first evidence showing that sugar, and lots of it, could make indestructible materials, either in nature like in the case of some extremophiles or in manufacturing like clothes and other materials.

That said, sugar is still bad for your health, and don’t expect sweet-tasting clothes any time soon.

Read More: How Microbially Grown Materials Became the Future of Electronics

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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