Secrets of the Porcupine Quill Could Help Us Make Better Medical Supplies

Biomimicry FTW!

We have alot to learn from nature. After all, evolution has been solving various problems long before we came around, and so by looking at the solutions it came up with (aka biomimicry), we can save a lot of R&D, and sometimes find clever ideas that we probably wouldn't have come up with on our own. One recent example of this comes from the porcupine, or more precisely, the porcupine quill. Each animal wears about 30,000 of them on their back to defend themselves against predators, and each quill has very interesting properties; everybody knows that they penetrate flesh very easily, but are very, very hard to remove, but until now, we didn't quite understand how they did this on a molecular level.

Porcupine QuillsWikipedia/Public Domain

In a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), scientists explain what they discovered studying the quills (and how they were surprised nobody had done it before), and how they could be useful to us:

Herein we show that the natural quill’s geometry enables easy penetration and high tissue adhesion where the barbs specifically contribute to adhesion and unexpectedly, dramatically reduce the force required to penetrate tissue. Reduced penetration force is achieved by topography that appears to create stress concentrations along regions of the quill where the cross sectional diameter grows rapidly, facilitating cutting of the tissue.

Basically, it was counter-intuitive to the scientists that the features of the quills that make them hard to remove also make them penetrate flesh more easily. We might expect that a completely smooth spike would go in more easily, and that anything that makes the surface rougher would only get in the way, but with the porcupine quill that's not the case. They describe this property as: "this is the first demonstration of a highly engineered system that achieves polar-opposite dual functionality."

By reverse-engineering porcupine quills, we might be able to produce better medical supplies:

The dual functions of barbs were reproduced with replica molded synthetic polyurethane quills. These findings should serve as the basis for the development of bio-inspired devices such as tissue adhesives or needles, trocars, and vascular tunnelers where minimizing the penetration force is important to prevent collateral damage.

So maybe someday you'll go to the hospital and they'll use porcupine-inspired needles and bandages on you. That might seem like a small thing, but think of how many hundreds of millions of needles and bandages are used every day around the world. If we can make them better by copying nature, that's awesome!


See also: Dr. Fido? Trained Dogs Can Smell 'Superbug' Bacteria, Help Prevent Deadly Outbreaks in Hospitals

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