The world, and especially India is fighting a huge pandemic caused by a tiny virus. As doctors and scientists look for tools to take on the COVID-19 epidemic, some are realizing that there are lessons to be learnt from nature.
Indeed, nature can inspire the simplest of inventions. Take for example the swab that is used to take samples from the nose and throat of people to test if they have the virus. When there was a shortage of swabs at the start of the pandemic, researchers at the Wyss Institute in Harvard University took inspiration from an unlikely source – a cat’s tongue – to make their own.
Unlike the tongue of dogs that simply lap up liquid, cat’s tongues seem to trap fluids that are then pulled in. The cat’s tongue is covered with sharp spines called papillae that give it a sandpaper-like feel. The spines curve backward towards the animal’s throat. The curved shape of the papillae allows it to wick up (absorb) water on contact, using surface tension.
The researchers figured that copying such a shape would create a swab that would collect mucus more efficiently from the throat and tongue. It would also deposit the mucus more easily onto the testing surface, they figured. So, taking inspiration from the cat’s tongue a new swab was designed that is much more efficient than the cotton tipped ones that have been in use for more than 50 years.