Biotechnology is all about taking lessons from nature, and some of today’s most innovative biotech researchers are looking for those lessons in a surprising place: the world of flowers. Scientific exploration currently taking place at the intersection of flowers and technology has yielded an incredible range of new ideas, products, and possibilities. Read on for a closer look at some of the most intriguing examples.
Engineers from ASUS, a Taipei-based computer company, were behind the creation of the “Florabots” displayed at the Taipei International Flora Exposition in 2010. These engineered flowers contained motion and sound detectors that allowed the flowers to light up, sway to music, and awaken other nearby Florabots in response to the presence of visitors.
Flower surfaces have long been a resource for scientists seeking to design effective non-adhesive surfaces. Roses can cling to water droplets even while upside down, for example, while lotus flower leaves are so hydrophobic that water droplets simply bounce off them. It was while studying lotus leaves that a research team from Duke University made an important discovery: lotus leaves are marked by two levels of roughness, both on the microscale and on the nanoscale level, that are essential for de-wetting the leaf. When there are two levels of rough textures, it’s much easier for the droplets to be shaken out, or to simply roll off as they merge together. Such findings could have significant implications for the fabrication of artificial waterproof materials.
Flower wind trees
Flowers not only provide scientific inspiration—as any gardener knows, they can also be an important source of aesthetic inspiration. NL Architects, a firm based in the Netherlands, is seeking to change negative public opinion about wind turbines with their beautiful and functional designs for small, easily mountable turbines shaped like flowers. Fittingly, the firm calls them “Power Flowers.” While smaller units like these are less effective in terms of power generation, the fact that they are also less obtrusive could result in more of them being used, particularly in locations that would not accommodate industrial-sized turbines.
Camelina, a relative of the mustard plant, is one of the few flowering crops currently being grown for biofuel production. Despite its lesser-known status as a biofuel crop, it boasts several advantages over other biofuel sources like corn and soy. For one, it’s not a food crop, meaning that using it for fuel doesn’t take away from food production, and it can be grown on marginal land and in rotation with other crops. Sustainable Oils is one biofuel company that’s developing aviation fuel from camelina.
Pollen grains have an intriguing way of functioning. In order to survive exposure to dry air while en route to the pistils of female plants, they rely on internal hydrostatic pressure systems to keep them folded in on themselves, in a kind of self-sealing mechanism. However, if pollen grains are inhaled by humans with allergies, they begin to expand and release some of their contents. A plant biophysics research team at Harvard University sees interesting potential here for medicines that are designed like pollen particles, which would result in a quick transfer to the blood stream once inhaled.
The same pollen research that could have implications for medicine delivery could also be applied to artificial packaging. For example, studying the pollen grain’s smart, responsive surfaces—which feature fold-in apertures that prevent water loss after grains leave the male plant—could lead to the development of smart shell packaging that has the ability to automatically respond to temperature changes.
You might not think that a hibiscus flower and a compact disc have much in common, but in fact, they both reflect light from a series of ordered grooves in their surfaces, thus producing an illusion of bright colors. When a University of Cambridge plant biology research team was studying this phenomenon, they found that this floral iridescence was more prevalent than they had believed, as it occurred in a number of other flowers, including tulips. The true potential of this discovery, however, lies in the fact that while humans can’t see this level of iridescence, bees can—a fact that could be exploited by the agricultural industry to boost pollination and potentially increase crop yields.