Avian flu, SARS, all manner of bacteria strains—it's enough to turn us into a nation of germaphobes. We could commit to washing our hands after touching … anything—or we could hope for a more practical strategy.
As it happens, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a paint-on coating that destroys flu bugs and other nasty microorganisms before they can stick. Brushed onto a surface, the liquid evaporates, leaving behind a clear coating of microscopic polymer spikes. "When bacteria settle onto the coating, the spikes damage the bacterial membranes," says Alexander M. Klibanov, the professor heading the research team.
That's an advance over antibacterial products currently on supermarket shelves. Those contain antibiotics or biocides that can wear off over time, leach chemicals into the environment, or even create more resistant strains of bacteria. What's more, they're typically not effective against airborne pathogens that find their way to surfaces after someone coughs or sneezes.
In lab experiments, the MIT researchers reduced the number of pathogens by at least 99.99%. Klibanov thinks that under the most optimistic scenarios, the coating could be on the market in a couple of years. (Until then, please, wash your hands.)
A version of this article appeared in the April 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.