Earth Science

The Amazing Origins of the Anti-Bacterial Shark Skin

a shark at sea

Despite the numerous advancements in the medical field over the years, particularly in the anti-bacterial technology and medicine section, there are still some microorganisms that can be thwarted by modern medical solutions. While bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens remain resilient today, there are still hundreds of researchers who are doing their best in stopping them from spreading diseases. One of the most advanced inventions created in the industry is Sharklet, a shark skin-like material that is supposed to be applied to wounds to prevent bacteria from entering the body. However, the inventor of this material originally made it for ships, so how did it find its way in the medical field? To know the answer, we should take a look at the amazing origins of the anti-bacterial shark skin.

Origins of the Medical Shark Skin

Before the invention of Sharklet for boats, the material used by boat builders to combat the buildup of organisms on the wet surfaces of the vessel was copper. This material, which appears as thin sheets, would often be placed at the boat’s hull where marine life would usually stick, grow, and thrive. This process, known as copper sheathing, is said to also be effective in prolonging the lifespan of ships, particularly those that are frequently sailing. It is a known fact that saltwater can hasten the corrosion process in the metal parts of ships, but by covering those parts with copper, the corrosion would be slowed down.

In the 1850s, copper sheathing was slowly being replaced by copper sulfide as the number one marine life shielding for boats and ships. Copper sulfide appears in the form of a liquid paint, which is said to last longer. Before the copper sulfide paint became popular around the world, the US Navy first planned to sell most of their iron ships, as they believe that the maintenance for those highly-corrosive vessels would be too expensive for the government. However, thanks to their discovery of copper sulfide paint, they covered their iron ships with copper sulfide so that they won’t have to a harder time maintaining its quality and performance. Seeing the potential that copper sulfide can bring not only in the maritime industry but also in other fields, the US Navy began funding the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a center that focuses on marine life research. The studies conducted by the said institution were published as a book in 1952, and today, that book serves as the inspiration behind some of the most advanced anti-bacterial inventions in the world.

a shark fin up-close

Sharklet is one of those inventions that benefitted from the popularity of copper sulfide. This material, which is supposed to mimic the patterns found in a shark’s skin, was invented by Dr. Anthony Brennan, a materials science and engineering professor at the University of Florida, in 2003. According to Brennan, he came up with the idea for Sharklet when he was trying to find better methods to prevent barnacles and other organisms from sticking to ships and boats, which can further add weight to the vessels and affect its overall performance. While observing barnacles, he found out that these creatures cannot stick to the skins or denticles of sharks, and after further research into the shark skin, he realized that the distinct diamond pattern found on the skin’s surface is what disables barnacles from sticking to it. By mimicking the pattern through biomimetics, Brennan believed that he could produce a better way to prevent marine life from sticking to sea vessels.

In 2003, Brennan successfully produced the first Sharklet plastic sheet, which he demonstrated in several conventions and meetings in the same year. At the surface of the Sharklet plastic sheet is a diamond pattern that replicates the appearance of shark denticles, thus allowing it has the same anti-bacterial and anti-microorganism properties. In order to sell the plastic sheet, Brennan founded the Sharklet Technologies company in 2007.

While the Sharklet sheet was initially conceptualized to be used for ships, the invention eventually found its way into hospitals and clinics, as Brennan stated that the anti-bacterial features of the material could help doctors and hospital owners prevent infections in their workplace. Moisture-filled areas, like hospitals, clinics, kitchens, and bathrooms, are often susceptible to bacterial growth, as it is the ideal location for these pathogens to thrive. However, by applying the Sharklet plastic sheet on the walls of areas, there would be little to no space for bacteria to grow. Besides the walls, the advanced sheet can also be utilized as a material for various medical apparatuses, including central venous catheters, wound dressings, and endotracheal tubes, which are also items produced and sold by Sharklet Technologies. Today, the Sharklet plastic sheet is more abundant in hospitals than at sea, due to the fact that the invention has more applications in the medical field rather than the maritime industry.

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