Daily Archives: 9th of September 2010

Plants plugging the gap

Image: Richard Wheeler, Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Richard Wheeler, Wikimedia Commons.

Engineers – and artists – have often sought inspiration from the natural world. Take for example the story of the discovery of Velcro by a Swiss gentleman when he observed how plant burrs were tightly stuck to his clothing and the hairs of his dog. This utilitarian view of nature even has its own term, biomimetics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biomimetics). As another example of how inspirational plants can be, researchers have exploited the healing process of lianas (woody climbing plants) to develop a ‘bionic coating’ that can quickly and efficiently repair pneumatic structures such as tyres (http://www.alphagalileo.org/ViewItem.aspx?ItemId=77771&CultureCode=en). The interdisciplinary team includes biologists from the Botanical Gardens of the University of Freiburg (Germany), chemists from the Freiburg Materials Research Center, and physicists and engineers from the Swiss Federal Laboratory for Materials Testing EMPA in Dübendorf. The botanically-inspired self-repairing foams can drastically reduce the amount of air escaping from damaged membranes and have been teamed up with the equally inspirational Tensairity® technology, which is a ‘foundational structure using inflated airbeams and attached stiffeners or cables that gains mechanical advantages for low mass’  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tensairity). ‘Even air mattresses or inflatable rafts could profit from the lightweight constructions one day’ said Dr Olga Speck of the University of Freiburg. So, as you relax on the Med. atop your li-lo you can dream up even more intriguing human applications for Mother Nature’s ingenuity. Although, as the discoverers of a pressure-sensitive tape freely admit, sometimes discoveries are just accidental (http://www.physorg.com/news197656087.html). The team at Oregon State University have come up with a new adhesive whilst trying to develop something else. Extolling the virtues of this serendipitous sticky stuff, Anlong Li, one of the product’s originators, says ‘This adhesive is incredibly simple to make, doesn’t use any organic solvents or toxic chemicals, and is based on vegetable oils that would be completely renewable, not petrochemicals. It should be about half the cost of existing technologies and appears to work just as well’. Potential uses for the adhesive include duct tape, packaging tape, stick-on notes, labels and even postage stamps.

The Rich History of Eggplant or Aubergine

Eggplants in the 14th Century

Eggplants in the 14th Century

An interesting website, Zester, explores the culture of food and drink – including a range of different species with potential for exploitation, as well as recipes about cooking them. Hopefully it does not give too much encouragement of wild collection (Sept 17: see comment below) or unsustainable fishing practices!

I was particularly interested in an article, “Eggplant’s Rich History: From ancient Arab diets to Sicilian recipes, the versatile eggplant has evolved around the globe”. Two papers in Annals of Botany provide a remarkable insight into the appearance of the earliest eggplants/aubergines used as food, and the ways they were cultivated. Amazingly, the first reliable written record comes from China in 59 BC. From the seventh century, selection for shape, size and taste became intense. See Ancient Chinese Literature Reveals Pathways of Eggplant Domestication for a summary, or this link to the pdf for the fully illustrated work,. Of course, the selection and evolution process continues today, with the most notable improvement being the selection of varieties without bitterness – the salting before cooking which was essential a decade ago is unnecessary with modern varieties.

Eggplant from China

Eggplant/Aubergine from China

In Europe, the first written records come from a 14th century translations of an 11th-century Arabic manuscript known as Taqwim al-Sihha bi al-Ashab al-Sitta, produced in northern Italy. The Tacuinum Sanitatis is richly illustrated and gives a window on late medieval life and cultivation of plants including eggplants and we published the most wonderful pictures from it – See http://aob.oxfordjournals.org/content/103/8/1187.full for the whole paper, or have a look here for just the pictures of eggplants being grown and harvested from the 14th century.
Corn segregating 3:1 yellow:white from Zester

Corn segregating 3:1 yellow:white from Zester

Meanwhile, back to Zester, and an article gives a range of ways to cook corn/maize/Zea mays. I’m unconvinced that any is better than lightly boiled with butter. But the picture highlighting the article shows a hybrid line, not F1, but segregating 3:1 for yellow and white kernels/endosperm. I make it 444:149 . This month’s highlight issue of Annals of Botany on Genes in Evolution has lots more about the origin of crops including maize, and the genetics behind evolution, some summarized in my article about genes in evolution and the genetics of speciation and biodiversity.

Genes in Evolution Cover

Genes in Evolution Cover