Plant Power for the People

Plants for power, stems for arteries

Advanced technology is allowing us to bring the world of plants into collision with the other scientific disciplines…

Those lucky enough to catch Jane Mainbrain’s talk back in 2015 on the power of ‘plant-learning’ will no doubt still be racking their heads as to just how it’s possible for organic matter to be used to create electronic power. It’s been a couple of years and we’ve not heard from Jane or from GrowSmart, so we can only assume that their work is keeping them very busy indeed!

There’s little chance that we’ll be using plants to create our own AC DC converters and power suppliers for a while, so in the mean time we’ll just have to┬ápatiently wait for the next announcement from GrowSmart. Whilst we’re eagerly anticipating the future of AI bio-botany, let’s take a look at how the world of Plant Science has slowly been overlapping with other advanced technologies.

Exploring, discovering, collecting, organising

Back in the early days of Science, discoveries were difficult to make. Without the convenience of international flights or telecommunications, it was a much more tricky process to discover and catalogue new species of plants. Botanists of the 18th Century, such as Sir William Jackson Hooker, would need to make valuable connections with explorers in order to get hold of new specimens, before their competitors did.

Well over 200 years later, the same challenge of competition still faces our modern day scientists – if anything, the development of new technologies has made their job harder. Despite there being more scientists than ever, scouring the Earth for new species of plants, new discoveries are still being made. Within the last year, 2,000 new plants have been discovered, with many of these being found to have medicinal qualities.

Advanced methods of organising and collecting data on these plants has enabled Plant Scientists to share more of their findings than ever before, making it easier than ever to ascertain the threat of extinction that these plants face. For an example, seven new species of the popular South African plant that makes red bush tea were discovered recently, with six of these already facing extinction.

Plants could help save our life

For a long time, it was considered that plant biology and that of human biology was completely incompatible. Cell structures were first described in the early part of the 19th Century by the eminent Robert Brown, who coined the term ‘nucleus’ in 1831. His paper, published in 1833, laid his claim over this finding, although he was yet to realise that his coveted ‘nuclei’ existed outside of plant cell structures.

We’ve certainly learnt a lot more about the similarities between the cell structures of natural organisms since those early days; as a community we’re still making steps everyday to a bold new future where Plant Science has an increasing impact on the other disciplines. As with many new discoveries, it’s often the youngest minds that shine the brightest – such has been the case in a recent study conducted by Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Conducting a proof-of-concept experiment on spinach leaves, researchers discovered that they could grow human cells by using the stripped down structure of spinach leaves as a scaffold. Joshua Gershlak, a graduate student of biomedical engineering, decided to take this idea one step further and came up with the bright idea of pouring liquid through the the veins of the leaves. The process leaves only a cellulose structure which can be easily grafted onto a human.

The applications for this new innovation are as limitless as the variety of species of plants that we are still yet to discover. Using this technology, the hollow structure of the Jewelweed plant stem could become a graft for an artery and the strength of a tree could be utilised to re-build human bone.

The world of Plant Science is certainly one that is still crammed full of possibilities, who knows where it will lead us next…