News - October 19, 2011

Veni grant to work out what makes geckos stick

How do geckos do it, hanging upside down from their feet? Joris Sprakel has been granted a quarter of a million euros to find out.

Joris Sprakel: seeing how the little hairs let go.
Sprakel (Physical Chemistry and Colloid Science) is one of five young Wageningen researchers who have won a Veni grant. His interest in geckos' sticking power prompted his choice of research proposal. Sprakel: 'How can animals such as geckos, which are quite big after all, suspend their entire weight from their feet?'

Little hairs
According to Sprakel, the current hypothesis is that this feat is made possible by little hairs on the soles of the gecko's feet. 'They are ordered in a particular way. Not just in geckos, but also in flies, starfish and numerous other creatures. You see the same pattern again and again. Apparently a pattern developed in the course of evolution that makes this possible. But we do not understand the physics of it. That is what I am now going to try to figure out.'

Letting go
The gecko's trick cannot be compared to the way Velcro works, says Sprakel. 'For that you need two specific types of surface. A gecko can stick to almost any surface, even glass. There must be a physical reason for it.' Sprakel is literally going to look at how the sticking works at micro level. 'I am going to set up an experiment in which I can see, with high resolution, how the little hairs let go, both in time and place.'  He won't be using live geckos to do this, though. 'I will make a sort of plastic gecko foot as a model. To see what the individual hairs do.' Nor is Sprakel's research aimed at getting a fuller understanding of the working of nature. No, an understanding of this process is intended to open up possibilities for applications.
Sprakel is one of five Wageningen researchers to be awarded a Veni grant this year by the research organization NWO. There were 965 candidates, of whom 159 won a grant. The other Wageningen researchers were Sanne Boesveldt (Human Nutrition), Rumyana Karlova (Molecular Biology), Vera Ros (Virology) and Tom Wennekes (Organic Chemistry). They will each receive a quarter of a million euros, enough to fund three years of research. The NWO awards
Veni grants annually to talented young scientists. Gaining a Veni grant is generally seen as an important step at the start of a scientific career.