Category Archives: Plants

biomimicry and the search for new tech

Biomimicry is the study of nature as inspiration for human designs in effort to fit  human technology into a more efficient and workable, sustainable model. Each organism alive today has the potential to teach humankind about the systems and rules it follows. Natural solutions aren’t just about having better materials.

They are about making products that might empower mankind against dwindling resources. Ecosystems aren’t just where we all live and consume resources but they are a resource of information as well. The ecosystem is self-replenishing and efficient and can be channeled and worked with in a way that has yet to be attempted. Potential new materials come with  side effects that warrant equal consideration. Biomimicry is a paradigm that fits many emerging techs. Take a look at spider venom’s effect on the drug industry, for example:

A peptide found in spider venom might lead to a safer class of painkillers. What other drugs, chemicals and designs are being inspired by biology and newly-studied species?

Biomimicry is a relatively young term, describing designs that derive inspiration by emulation of designs found in nature. The movement is focused on sustainable human endeavors and projects that will compliment the environment humans share with the rest of the natural world and thus better humanity’s chance for survival. Check out this video, the most recent by Janine Benyus, one of the idea’s most vocal proponents.

You might wonder why these chemicals are found in nature at all? There are many functions and motivations behind the diverse, unfound substances found in the Eco-system. Plants develop poison to discourage predators. some develop drugs to encourage other species to assist with seed dispersal. Evolution has provided the earth with highly diversified species of plants fungi and animals the vast majority of which have yet to be explored.

French researchers discovered a painkiller as powerful as morphine in the venom of e infamous African black mamba snake. Then there is a potential psoriasis treatment derived from the venom of the Caribbean sun anemone, undergoing testing in the U.S. might help sufferers with psoriasis, autoimmune disorders, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.gecko

Textures and surface patterns of geckos have been studied for stickiness. Skin textures of some animals have been proven to possess antimicrobial properties, in that bacterial colonies can’t find a way to attach to surfaces, making water currents and frequent rinsing enough to eliminate infective agents.

Artificial limb design and development has been greatly advanced by designs mimicking the weight-bearing capacity of other animals. New technologies are being developed to grant disabled people the ability to feel touch, as the natural mechanisms controlling pain, touch and movement are further understood.


In recent biomimetic news, we may see a mastery of understanding the human eye lead to a leap in ocular and immersive tech. MHOX is an Italian design firm who would like  synthetic replacement eyes.EYE to become an affordable, regular upgrade people opt for. Their work could restore sight to the blind and be the missing link to allow locative tech and a lot of web 2.0 concepts to become workable mainstream realities.

There is an initial shock in some people when these concepts are explained. Something about the current trends over the last few decades favoring straight, clean lines that are inspired by lifeless geometry over bio-inspired,  flowing shapes.

The drugs and prosthetics discussed, theorized and predicted in the biomimetics industries doesn’t have to turn humans into cyborgs, although some proponents wouldn’t be against that. It is likely that the public will be more inclined to accept these advancements as they are developed. Decades back people might have been less receptive to plastic hip replacements and artificial hearts, but the medical community has become very good at installing these prosthetics as minimally invasive, outpatient procedures.


Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Why is CRISPR the Science Buzzword of Early 2015?

CRISPR isn’t just the cutting edge of genetic modification – it is re-framing our understanding of evolution.

 What is CRISPR?
CRISPR is a DNA sequence that can do something most other genes can’t. It changes based on the experience of the cell it’s written in.  It works because of a natural ability for cells to rewrite their own genetic code, first discovered in 1987. The name CRISPR was coined in 2002, and it stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”. They function as a method of inserting recognizable DNA of questionable or dangerous viruses into DNA strands so that the offspring of the cell can recognize what its ancestors have encountered and defeated in the past. By inserting a CRISPR-associated protein into a cell along with a piece of RNA code the cell didn’t write, DNA can be edited.A 2012 breakthrough  involved, in part, the work of Dr. Jennifer A. Doudna. Doudna and the rest of the team at UC Berkley were the first to edit human DNA using CRISPR.  Recently, in March 2015, she warned this new genome-editing technique comes with dangers and ethical quandaries, as new tech often does. Dr. Doudna in a NYT article, she called for a planet-wide moratorium on human DNA editing, to allow humanity time to better understand the complicated subset of issues we all now face.
CRISPR-related tech insn’t only about editing human genes, though. It affects cloning and the reactivation of otherwise extinct species. It isn’t immediately clear what purpose this type of species revival would have without acknowledging the scary, rapidly increasing list of animals that are going extinct because of human activity. Understanding and utilizing species revival could allow humans to undo or reverse some of our environmental wrongs. The technique may be able to revive the long lost wooly mammoth by editing existing elephant DNA to match the mammoth‘s, for instance. Mammoths likely died out due to an inability to adapt to natural climate change which caused lower temperatures in their era, and are a non-politically controversial choice but the implications for future environmentalism are promising.
Each year, mosquitoes are responsible for the largest planetary human death toll. Editing DNA with CRISPR bio-techniques could help control or even wipe out malaria someday. The goal of this controversial tech is to make the mosquito’s immune system susceptible to malaria or make decisions about their breeding based on how susceptible they are to carrying the disease. The controversy around this approach to pest and disease control involves the relatively young research behind Horizontal Gene Transfer, where DNA is passed from one organism to an unrelated species. A gene that interferes with the ability of mosquitoes to reproduce could end up unintentionally cause other organisms to have trouble reproducing. This info is based on the work of , ,
Even more controversial are the startups claiming they can create new life forms, and own the publishing rights. Austen Heinz’ firm is called Cambrian Genomics which grows genetically-controlled and edited plants. The most amazing example is the creation of a rose species that literally glows in the dark. Cambrian is collaborating with the rose’s designer, a company called Glowing Plant, whose projects were eventually banned from kickstarter for violating a rule about owning lifeforms. Eventually, Heinz wants to let customers request and create creatures:
The final example in an ongoing list of 2015 breakthroughs involving CRISPR is this CRISPR-mediated direct mutation of cancer genes in the mouse liver might be able to combat cancer. It’s the second cancer-related breakthrough in 2015 that affects the immune system, the first was on Cosmos about a week back: Accidental Discovery Could Turn Cancer Cells Into Cancer-Attacking Immune Cells.

Other Related articles:

Pre-Darwinian Theory of Heredity Wasn’t Too Far Off

Wooly Mammoth Poised to be the First De-Extincted Animal, Son~!


Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Some mushrooms glow in the dark – here’s why

Glowing fungi with an on-off system synchronised to their daily rhythms? It sounds implausible but it’s true.

Some mushrooms evolved the ability to glow in the dark in order to attract insects to spread their spores, according to new research in the journal Current Biology.

Fungi are peculiar beings at the best of times. Once believed to be closely related to plants, they are now understood to be more closely related to animals.

Mushrooms, or fungal fruit bodies – the bit you see above ground – may be familiar to us all as food but in the real world mushroom-forming fungi only produce these fruit bodies under special conditions. The main body of the fungus exists largely out of sight as a colony of white thread-like hyphae growing through a food source such as a piece of wood or leaf litter.

In some instances fungal colonies can be old and very large. A colony of Armillaria solidipes in the US is estimated to cover 9.6km2 and be thousands of years old.

Fruit bodies and sexual progeny

Fungal fan Mike Hale inspects some Armillaria.
Mike Hale, Author provided

Fruit bodies are produced to disperse their sexual progeny as spores. Many fungi shoot spores into the air from the underside of the mushrooms, relying on moving air currents to passively distribute the spores over a wide area.

If the fungus is several metres up the trunk of a tree, this method is ideal. But wind speed is often either minimal or non-existent on the underside of logs or at the ground level in a dense forest or even underground, where truffles are produced.

So if air movement isn’t effective how can spores be dispersed far and wide? One option is through aroma. Truffles, the fruiting body of the Ascomycete fungi, use their smell to attract fungivores such as pigs or squirrels who eat them and leave spores behind in their waste. Stinkhorn mushrooms have a foul-smelling slime which attracts flies and other insects. The flies eat the slime and unwittingly spread the spores elsewhere.


Light is also attractive to many insects. Indeed a number of fungi bioluminesce, emitting a pale green light. One of the first mycology texts I read as a teenager devoted a whole chapter to “luminosity”, mentioning various fungi including some honey fungi (Armillaria), Jack O’lantern (Omphalotus olearius, pictured at the top of this article) and a number of Mycena.

Mycena chlorophos – a fungus found in subtropical Asia.
lalalfdfa, CC BY-NC-SA

In the new study, a team of Brazilian and American researchers looked at the pale green light emission from fungi, to assess whether it attracted insects and whether brighter light conferred a selective advantage for spore dispersal.

The researchers looked at Neonothopanus gardneri, a particularly intense emitter found at the base of coconut palms in Brazil. It was previously thought their light was emitted continuously as a byproduct of some other round-the-clock metabolic process.

However, the study found the fungus glows only at night, and so is energy efficient; during daytime the light emission would be too faint to be visible. In any case, the best conditions for spore germination in canopy forests are found at night, when it is more humid. If the mushrooms glow only at night then the bioluminescence must serve some purpose.

Camera observations showed the glowing fruit bodies became infested by rove beetles. But these beetles may have been attracted by something else – smell, perhaps.

The beetles will never figure this one out.
Oliviera et al

To specifically test the glowing effect, experimental “mushrooms” made from clear acrylic resin were built. They were equipped with a light emitting diode which operated at a similar wavelength to the mushrooms. To the beetles, the light would have looked the same.

The glowing plastic mushrooms attracted these and various other insects sensitive to green light, while fewer were attracted to non-illuminated controls. From this we can conclude that for these fungi there is a selective advantage to glowing in the dark.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

How Hunter-Gatherers Brought Grain to Great Britain 7,600 Years Ago

We like to imagine that our distant Ice Age ancestors were hunterers by instinct, fearlessly navigating an unforgiving world, in the face of an extreme climate and unimaginable danger – nomads without a home, following only the stars and the herds through the brush. Whether it sounds romanticized or barbaric, the real picture could be very different, thanks to some new evidence brought to light by British archaeologists and published in Science this week.

While the diet of the average hunter-gatherer seems largely unpalatable today – living and dying in an age without most of the produce we take for granted, and which has also contributed to obesity epidemics, they didn’t always live off the land in the strictest sense of the term – actively trading with other tribes and even importing grains which they introduced to the British Isles from the European continent. In fact, if the ancient DNA discovered just below the British coast is any indication, it is likely that farming may have been happening in Great Britain 2,000 years earlier than what researchers once thought. Beneath the rocks of the windy coast lie the remains of what was once a prehistoric hunting camp.

“The work may be forcing archaeologists to confront the challenge of fitting this into our worldview,” said Dorian Fuller, an archaeobotanist at University College London who did not partake in the research. It may show that the evolution of agriculture was much more of a gradual and complex process than archaeologists had previously thought, affecting the transition of each adapting tribe in different ways.

For decades, the classic model held by archaeologists was that some of the earliest farmers traveled through the Middle East into Europe, first migrating some 10,500 years ago. Upon their arrival, they either began to replace or successfully converted these hunter-gatherer populations when they continued to move westward. They finally reached the British Isles somewhere around 6,000 years ago, around the time that Mesopotamia first discovered the properties of beer making. However, this worldview has undergone a number of modifications in the last several years. Back in 2013, some excavations of dwellings show that farmers and hunter-gatherers co-existed for a substantial period of time, during which they my have developed their own barter system for services, rather than everyone readily embracing the new concept of agriculture. A 2013 archaeological dig in Germany revealed that both farmers and hunter-gatherers shared a cave for burying their dead, a practice they continued for over 800 years, indicating that these groups often lived closely together on overlapping tracts of land. Another more controversial find, still not fully tested, is the claim that some hunter-gatherers living in the Baltic region of Europe 6,500 years ago may have actually eaten domesticated swine, which they were given by local farmers.

Rather than moving from east to west, this rash of new excavations could mean that these people traveled much more erratically and extensively than we once thought. Robin Allaby, a plant geneticist at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, led the expedition, initially in a search for evidence of the oldest domesticated plants in Great Britain, a land which was settled by people relatively later than the rest of Europe. On their travels, the researchers decided to explore an already known underwater site, the Bouldnor Cliff, about 820 feet off Britain’s southern coast in the English Channel.

Bouldnor Cliff, located 36 feet below the water’s surface, was first described as fossil rich in 1999, drawing the curiosity of researchers everywhere after the United Kingdom’s Maritime Archaeology Trust recalled, “a lobster seen throwing Stone Age worked flints from its burrow.” Archaeologists haven’t left it alone since. The hunter-gatherers who camped near the site, who we might think of as land dwellers, are suspected to have sailed wooden boats built from trees near the coast. Allaby’s team discovered some burnt hazelnut shells in the sediments, which radiocarbon dating and ancient DNA analysis revealed to be between 8,020 to 7,980 years ago, before the sea levels rose that separated Britain from France.

When comparing these DNA samples, the team was in for another pleasant surprise. They were able to isolate from the DNA samples two different kinds of domesticated wheat – one of which was of Middle Eastern origin, with no ancestors living in the wilderness of northern Europe. Therefore, the nomads who camped out on Bouldnor Cliff were somehow associated with the beginning of agriculture throughout the Middle East, which began some 10,500 years ago.

So did they farm their own wheat somewhere near the encampment? No traces of pollen were detected in further analyses, which would have implied that the plants were actually grown and underwent a flowering process in prehistoric Britain. They also ruled out any possibility that their sample was contaminated with modern grasses. If this is consistent with other findings, it is likely that farming may have begun as early as 7600 years ago, spreading to Britain from France.

However, there is the other possibility that hunter-gatherers from Britain may have gone deeper into the heart of Europe than researchers have proposed, and actually picked up products from farmers living eastward, which they then brought back to their camp. Allaby has agreed that the usage and frequency of grains in Britain at this time period is still disputable – it might have been seen as more of a rare commodity like exotic spices, than a staple of daily diets.

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.

Hybrid Fern’s Last Common Ancestor 60-Million Years Earlier

Cystocarpium roskamianum, a common fern in parts of France, seems to be a naturally cross-bred product of  two separate ferns. Ferns reproduce via spores. Read the DNA analysis here, decribing cystocarpium roskamianum as a hybrid fern with parents whose last common ancestor was nearly 60 million years ago. This hybrid is unique to the French Pyrenees but can be found in flowershops and greenhouses throughout Europe. It’s noteworthy as an intergeneric hybrid with lineages that have not cross-fertilized since that common ancestor.

The DNA report is entitled: Natural Hybridization between Genera That Diverged From Each Other Approximately 60 Million Years Ago. (Carl J. Rothfels, Anne K. Johnson, Peter H. Hovenkamp, David L. Swofford, Harry C. Roskam, Christopher R. Fraser-Jenkins, Michael D. Windham, and Kathleen M. Pryer, The American Naturalist, Vol. 185, No. 3 (March 2015), pp. 433-442)

This is an extraordinarily deep hybridization event, roughly akin to an elephant hybridizing with a manatee or a human with a lemur.

The research team went on to acknowledge that fern populations develop new adaptations slowly and with much overlap and shared DNA. Much of our planet’s biodiversity is dependent on cross pollination of species with complimentary traits as opposed to adaptive mutations that spur evolution in lifeforms of more diverse lineage.  In other words,  the history of interbreeding based on desirable traits runs 60 million years deep for ferns.

Carl Rothfels headed the study. He pointed out that cystocarpium roskamianum is a current record for this type of hybrid. “A 60 million year divergence is approximately equivalent to a human mating with a lemur.”

Just because it’s the oldest common-relative hybrid on record doesn’t mean Cystocarpium roskamianum is hard to find. It’s a common hybrid that is found in areas where the spores of one species can blow via wind into the leaves of the other. It has an unconventional look for a fern but it’s easily identifiable and commonly found.

This fern story might be part of the trending science at the root of this ridiculous ban on human-animal hybrids proposed to be written into actual bonefide American law by Georgia Republican State Rep., Tom Kirby. Alarmism is a bad way to react to new science and the conversation got pretty silly. Check out some of Kirby’s gems:

Mermaids: “Y’know the mermaids in the ocean, that’s been around for a long time,” Kirby said. “I don’t think we should create them. But if they exist, that’s fine.”

Centaurs: “Y’know I really don’t like centaurs,” Kirby said of the half-man, half-horse mythological character. “They really have bad attitudes most of the time and we’ve got enough people with bad attitudes as it is.”

Bird-men: “I think man has been trying to fly forever,” Kirby said. He approves of bird-men, he says, “if it’s a natural genetic mutation.” He acknowledges such a mutation could help solve Georgia’s transportation issues.

Werewolves: “We don’t want to laboratorily create the werewolf,” Kirby said. But “naturally occurring in the environment, absolutely.”

The research seems to point out that ferns can easily interbreed with other ferns simply because they have not evolved genetic barriers that stop them from doing so. The implication is that other lifeforms have evolved an aversion or set of obstacles that stop crossbreeding in order to fine tune the speed of adaptation to suit each lifeform’s unique attempt at evolving.


Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY