Here’s How Insect Wings Could Help Save Your Vision

A white moth seen through blurry vision

Given that the mere sight of bugs can make some people squirm, it's perhaps ironic that the key to unlocking medical advances in vision could be hiding in the wings of insects. 

According to a press release from the American Chemical Society, researchers have discovered that cicada and dragonfly wings are are naturally equipped with minuscule pillars that stop harmful bacteria from reaching the surface of their bodies. And the researchers have successfully engineered an imitation of these microscopic pillars, which they hope to apply to cutting-edge vision restoration tactics. 

The findings were presented Tuesday at the 251st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society.

Vincent van Zalinge/Unsplash

Albert F. Yee, Ph.D., led a team of researchers at the University of California, Irvine, to arrive at these findings. According to one of his team members, graduate student Mary Nora Dickson, the findings build on past research. 

"Our method is based on one developed in the early 2000s for the semiconductor industry," Dickson said in the press release. "It is robust, inexpensive and can be used in industrial production. So it can now be applied to medical devices that could improve people's quality of life."

So how do researchers plan to use these nanopillars, as they're called, to achieve advances in vision care?

First, they have to replicate the conical structures. According to researchers, not all insect wings are created equal. The nanopillars located on cicada wings, for instance, are relatively stubby, but they're capable of warding off gram-negative bacteria. The nanopillars on dragonfly wings, however, are comparatively taller and skinnier, and can protect against gram-positive bacteria. 

Taken together, researchers are trying replicate both types — though the dragonfly-type structures are more difficult — to ultimately create artificial corneas. These artificial corneas would be bacteria-resistant and would ultimately aim to help prevent vision loss ... which is pretty fly.

Vincent van Zalinge/Unsplash