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Jan Lee headshot

Medicine's Newest Biomimicry Inspirations: Spider-Man and the Slippery Slug

By Jan Lee

Biomimicry is increasingly becoming the go-to resource for solving technology's biggest problems. From the gecko's sticky webbed feet to the kingfisher's needle-shaped beak, Mother Nature's resources seem inexhaustible.

Even the intriguing and mysterious concept of artificial intelligence is based on biomimicry. The idea that the human psyche and physique could actually one day present the perfect model for how to overcome man's greatest frailties is an example of nature and and human ingenuity working together.

And so is, remarkably, the lowly slug. The slinky cousin to the garden snail actually has its own fan base: ecologists and technology experts that spend hours classifying and studying this odd, shell-less mollusk in its own habitat.

"Slugs, like every living organism in an ecosystem have a role," writes the authors of the website SlugWatch. "As well as providing a crucial food source for other wildlife, many species are key composters, helping to breakdown decomposing vegetation."

But when it comes to medical science, it seems, their real gift isn't its appetite but its stick-to-itiveness.

Researchers from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) at Harvard University have been studying the slug in hopes of creating an adhesive that can bind to wet and healing human tissue, such as after surgery. Many of the adhesives on the market, even those that can be applied to the human skin, are toxic to open tissue.

The Dusky Arion slug however, may offer an answer. Researchers have found that when threatened, the slug "glues" itself to the surface so that it can't be moved. In this case, its secret isn't suction, but sticky mucus secretion.

Scientists are hoping that they will be able to simulate the slug's technique in a medical adhesive.

And the slug isn't the only creature that is helping medical researchers solve tough problems. The sandcastle worm, often found in the intertidal waters of California, is teaching researchers how to create an adhesive that could potentially mend bones. The proteins it excretes are activated when they come in contact with the salty sea water and bond instantly. Scientists are working on reproducing this secretion for use in emergency rooms and other medical settings.

And while he may seem like an unlikely inspiration for biomimicry, Spider-Man -- and again, the resourceful gecko -- have been credited with the discovery of yet more ways for surgeons to improve medical healing processes. Dr. Jeffrey Karp, who is known around the medical community as a bioinspirationalist (a person who studies nature to find answers for scientific challenges) turned to the gecko's spiny pads to develop a medical tape that could be used inside the body, such as during delicate surgeries. He says he credits an article that drew a parallel between the gecko's sticky feet and the amazing abilities of the popular cult hero, Spider-Man for the breakthrough.

"When we look to solve problems, it’s not so we can publish papers and get pats on the back from the academic community,” Nick Sherman, a research technician who works at Karp Lab, explained to Guardian Newspaper writer Laura Parker. “It’s more like, ‘Is this work going to help patients? If not, how do we make it help them?'"

It's a sentiment that Spider-Man would probably agree with.


Images: Madame Tussaud's Spider-Man - Flickr/big-ashb; Dusky Arion Slug - Flickr/Anita Ritenour; Sandcastle Worm - Wikimedia/Fred Hayes/University of Utah

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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