It was, no doubt, a gathering of enthusiasts. Predictably, some of the symposium presentations dealt with far-out ideas, thought experiments, and exploratory, early-stage research—the kind of stuff serious scholars and entrepreneurs might talk about in private, but rarely in public. For instance: how to build a mockup starship on Earth, how religion might evolve in space, which textiles and apparel might be best for interstellar travel, how to make relativistic propulsion systems, and how we might hunt for water-independent alien life.
As a science journalist with more than a decade of experience, I was skeptical. Scouring the program and listening to a few presentations I found a mix of philosophizing and hard data, mathematical hand waving and products-in-development. It wasn’t clear there’d be anything worth covering.
But one symposium session did catch my eye. Chelsea Magin, a product developer at Sharklet Technologies was presenting an alluringly titled talk called “3-D Printed Sharkskin for Enhanced Interstellar Wound Healing.” Who could ignore all of those buzzwords stuffed into a single sentence?
I was pleased to learn that the presentation was well grounded. “Much of space travel is about sustaining human life while we’re traveling,” says Magin, referring to space medicine in general. “Being able to 3-D print is a more sustainable way of doing it,” she says. “You’re not carrying around boxes and boxes of wound dressings.”
In fact, most problems in space and on ultra-long duration missions often boil down to issues of scarcity, adaptability, and efficient use of resources. Not too different, actually, from living well on Earth. Think about rural burn units, remote battlefields, and rural hospitals. Some “starship” technologies might actually have some real-world applications.
Sharklet’s wound dressings are made from a double-layered biodegradable material that can be printed into the shape of a specific gouge or cut, Magin explains. On the top layer are a series of ridges and valleys about two micrometers across. These features effectively direct the migration of healthy skin cells into the wound. The microscopic topology of the dressings are patterned after the same topology found in sharkskin, which keeps barnacles and algae from sticking—it’s a topology that whales and most boats don’t possess, and it’s what keeps a shark’s skin clean and free of so-called biofouling.
Magin says that the dressing design takes advantage of the natural impulse for skin cells to migrate. At the edges of a wound, skin cells receive biochemical signals that tell them they’re not fully surrounded by other skin cells, so they move in random directions until they are. If you’ve just cut yourself shaving, the cells don’t have much ground to cover, but a deeper gash is harder to traverse. This is where the patterns of sharkskin can help.