Here’s how earwax might clean ears

Goo traps incoming dust; chewing motion may ferry crumbling concoction out

animals and their earwax

WHAT’S IN YOUR EAR?  Studying earwax (sample below the type of animal donor species) might inspire new ways to reduce dust buildup.

Top row, left to right: David DeHetre/Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Dan Belanescu/Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Rob Wells/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar/Flickr (CC BY 2.0); bottom row: A. Noel, Z. Zachow and D. Hu/Georgia Tech

NEW ORLEANS — The self-cleaning marvel known as earwax may turn the dust particles it traps into agents of their own disposal.

Earwax, secreted in the ear canal, protects ears from building up dunes of debris from particles wafting through the air. The wax creates a sticky particle-trapper inside the canal, explained Zac Zachow January 7 at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. The goo coats hairs and haphazardly pastes them into a loose net. Then, by a process not yet fully understood, bits of particle-dirtied wax leave the ear, taking their burden of debris with them.

Earwax may accomplish such a feat because trapping more and more dust turns it from gooey to crumbly, Zachow said. Working with Alexis Noel in David Hu’s lab at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, he filmed a rough demonstration of this idea: Mixing flour into a gob of pig’s earwax eventually turned the lump from stickier to drier, with crumbs fraying away at the edges.

Jaw motions might help shake loose these crumbs, Zachow said. A video inside the ear of someone eating a doughnut showed earwax bucking and shifting. This dust-to-crumb scenario needs more testing, but Noel points out that earwax might someday inspire new ways of reducing dust buildup in machinery such as home air-filtration systems.


Editor’s note: This story was updated January 30, 2017, to correct the date of the presentation.

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