Under the radar
I have begun to write a regular column for a new BBC sci/tech website called BBC Future. The catch is that, as it is funded (not for profit) by a source other than the license fee, you can’t view it from the UK. If you’re not in the UK, you should be able to see the column here. It is called Under the Radar, and will aim to highlight papers/work that, for one reason or another (as described below), would be likely to be entirely ignored by most science reporters. The introductory column, the pre-edited version of which is below, starts off by setting out the stall. I have in fact 3 or 4 pieces published here so far, but will space them out a little over the next few posts.
Reading science journalism isn’t, in general, an ideal way to learn about what goes on in science. Almost by definition, science news dwells on the exceptional, on the rare advances that promise (even if they don’t succeed) to make a difference to our lives or our view of the universe. But while it’s always fair to confront research with the question ‘so what?’, and while you can hardly expect anyone to be interested in the mundane or the obscure, the fact is that behind much if not most of what is done by scientists lies a good, often extraordinary, story. Yet unless they happen to stumble upon some big advance (or at least, an advance that can be packaged and sold as such), most of those stories are never told.
They languish beneath the forbidding surface of papers published by specialized journals, and you’d often never guess, to glance at them, that they have any connection to anything useful, or that they harbour anything to spark the interest of more than half a dozen specialists in the world. What’s more, science then becomes presented as a succession of breakthroughs, with little indication of the difficulties that intervene between fundamental research and viable applications, or between a smart idea and a proof that it’s correct. In contrast, this column will aim to unearth some of those buried treasures and explain why they’re worth polishing.
Another reason why much of the interesting stuff gets overlooked is that good ideas rarely succeed all at once. Many projects get passed over because at first they haven’t got far enough to cross a reporter’s ‘significance threshold’, and then when the work finally gets to a useful point, it’s deemed no longer news because much of it has been published already.
Take a recent report by Shaoyi Jiang, a chemical engineer at the University of Washington in Seattle, and his colleagues in the Germany-based chemistry journal journal Angewandte Chemie. They’ve made an antimicrobial polymer coating which can be switched between a state in which it kills bacteria (eliminating 99.9% of sprayed-on E. coli) and one where it shrugs off the dead cells and resists the attachment of new ones. That second trick is a valuable asset for a bug-killing film, since even dead bacteria can trigger inflammation.
The thing is, they did this already three years ago. But there’s a key difference now. Before, the switching was a one-shot affair: once the bacteria were killed and removed, you couldn’t get the bactericidal film back. So if more bacteria do slowly get a foothold, you’re stuffed.
That’s why the researchers have laboured to make their films fully reversible, which they’ve achieved with some clever chemistry. They make a polymer layer sporting dangling molecular ‘hairs’ like a carpet, each hair ending in a ring-shaped molecule deadly to bacteria. If the surface is moistened with water, the ring springs open, transformed into a molecular group to which bacteria can’t easily stick. Just add a weak acid – acetic acid, basically vinegar – and the ring snaps closed again, regenerating a bactericidal surface as potent as before.
This work fits with a growing trend to make materials ‘smart’ – able to respond to changes in their environment. Time was when a single function was all you got: a non-adhesive ‘anti-fouling’ film, say, or one that resists corrosion or reduces light reflection (handy for solar cells). But increasingly, we want materials that do different things at different times or under different conditions. Now there’s a host of such protean substances: materials that can be switched between transparent and mirror-like say, or between water-wettable and water-repelling.
Another attraction of Jiang’s coating is that these switchable molecular carpets can in principle be coated onto a wide variety of different surfaces – metal, glass, plastics. The researchers say that it might be used on hospital walls or on the fabric of military uniforms to combat biological weapons. That sort of promise is generally where the journalism stops and the hard work begins, to turn (or not) this neat idea into mass-produced materials that are reliable, safe and affordable.
Reference: Z. Cao et al., Angewandte Chemie International Edition online publication doi:10.1002/anie.201106466.