WTF Fun Fact 13610 – Creating Plant Biosensors

Scientists at the University of California – Riverside have engineered plant biosensors that change color in the presence of specific chemicals.

Someday, the greenery decorating our homes and gardens might soon be ornamental and an environmental watchdog. (Of course, plants are already good indicators of their surroundings since they tend to wilt or die when things get toxic.)

Innovative Plant Biosensors

It all started with a question: What if a simple house plant could alert you about contaminants in your water? Delving deep into this concept, the UC Riverside team made it a reality. In the presence of a banned, toxic pesticide known as azinphos-ethyl, the engineered plant astonishingly turns a shade of beet red. This development offers a visually compelling way to indicate the presence of harmful substances around us.

Ian Wheeldon, an associate professor of chemical and environmental engineering at UCR, emphasized the groundbreaking nature of this achievement. “In our approach, we ensured the plant’s natural metabolism remains unaffected,” he explained. “Unlike earlier attempts where the biosensor component would hinder the plant’s growth or water absorption during stress, our method doesn’t disrupt these essential processes.”

The team’s findings, elaborated in a paper published in Nature Chemical Biology, unveiled the secret behind this transformative process. At the heart of the operation lies a protein known as abscisic acid (ABA). Under stressful conditions like droughts, plants produce ABA, signaling them to conserve water and prevent wilting. The research team unlocked the potential of ABA receptors, training them to latch onto other chemicals besides ABA. When these receptors bind to specific contaminants, the plant undergoes a color change.

From Plant to Yeast: Expanding the Biosensor Spectrum

The UC Riverside team didn’t just stop at plants. They expanded their research horizon to include yeast, turning this organism into a chemical sensor. Remarkably, yeast exhibited the capability to respond to two distinct chemicals simultaneously, a feat yet to be achieved in plants.

Sean Cutler, UCR professor of plant cell biology, highlighted the team’s vision. “Imagine a plant that can detect up to 100 banned pesticides,” he said. “The potential applications, especially in environmental health and defense, are immense. However, there’s a long way to go before we can unlock such extensive sensing capabilities.”

The Path Forward for Plant Biosensors

While the initial results are promising, commercial growth of these engineered plants isn’t on the immediate horizon. Stringent regulatory approvals, which could span years, are a significant hurdle. Moreover, as a nascent technology, there are numerous challenges to overcome before it finds a place in real-world applications, like farming.

Yet, the future looks bright. “The potential extends beyond just pesticides,” Cutler added. “We aim to detect any environmental chemical, including common drugs that sometimes seep into our water supplies. The technology to sense these contaminants is now within reach.”

 WTF fun facts


WTF Fun Fact 13190 – Victorian Pteridomania

Victorians had a lot of fun quirks, especially when it came to nature and collecting. For example, in 1829, “fern fever,” also called Pteridomania, gripped amateur botanists around Europe and the U.S.

What set off “fern mania”?

The craze for ferns (yes, the plants) came about in part as a result of an invention by a British surgeon. Nathaniel Bagshaw Warn invented the Wardian case. It was a mini greenhouse that could keep plants alive in England despite the dreary weather. Exotic specimens were being collected all over the world. Thanks to the case, they could now be brought back and put on display in greenhouses and in homes with grimmer weather.

According to Atlas Obscura (cited below): “His invention allowed botanist George Loddiges to build the world’s largest hothouse in East London, which included a fern nursery.”

What was Pteridomania?

Ferns were associated with fairies and other mythical creatures, so it wasn’t hard to get people interested in them. But Loddiges needed visitors to keep his hothouse operating. So he spread the (unsubstantiated) word that spending time around ferns could increase intelligence and virility, and improve mood. That was enough to get people interested in not only visiting his fern collection but to start mini collections of their own.

Amateur botany transcended classes, and everyone from aristocrats to miners started collecting ferns as a hobby. When the Victorians weren’t collecting ferns they were reading about them. Roughly 300 books on ferns were published during this time. 

According to Atlas Obscura, things eventually got out of hand.

“Since the fern was not easy to cultivate, even with Wardian cases at hand, prices soon skyrocketed. After all, there were only 40 types of ferns in the English countryside, and collectors needed more. A non-British specimen could cost up to the Victorian equivalent of 1,000 pounds. Professional fern hunters wrote accounts of scouring the West Indies, Panama and Honduras for a never-seen-before fern. If you could not afford to sponsor a scientific expedition to South America or Asia, there was always the notorious underworld to turn to: crimewaves of fern-stealing plagued the countryside for decades.”  WTF fun facts

Source: “How the Victorian Fern-Hunting Craze Led To Adventure, Romance, and Crime” — Atlas Obscura

WTF Fun Fact 13143 – Grass Screams When Cut

You’ll never cut your grass again without thinking of this weird fact – grass cries for help when it’s mowed. No, you can’t hear it, but scientists have discovered grass screams when cut.

How does grass scream when cut?

We’re only just beginning to understand how plants communicate with one another and the rest of the world around them (including insects).

Dr. Michael Kolomiets, a Texas A&M AgriLife Research plant pathologist, published an article in 2014 in The Plant Journal noting that the aroma of cut grass is the plant’s way of both signaling distress and attracting beneficial insects that will help it heal.

According to ScienceDaily (cited below): “When there is need for protection, the plant signals the environment via the emission of volatile organic compounds, which are recognized as a feeding queue for parasitic wasps to come to the plant that is being eaten and lay eggs in the pest insect,” Kolomiets said.

Plant communication

Grass produces a “defensive” protein when damaged. Of course, that doesn’t stop the lawnmower or insects from destroying the blades. But it appears to produce a compound that repels insects that are feeding on the damaged grass.

This compound, or one related to it, also appears to attract organisms like parasitic wasps that feed on insects like caterpillars that are destroying the grass.

Or to put it in science-speak:

“We have proven that when you delete these volatiles, parasitic wasps are no longer attracted to that plant,even when an insect chews on the leaf. So this volatile is required to attract parasitoids. We have provided genetic evidence that green leafy volatiles have this dual function — in the plant they activate production of insecticidal compounds, but also they have indirect defense capability because they send an SOS-type signal that results in attraction of parasitic wasps.”

So, maybe it’s not so much that grass screams when cut so much as it cries for help. Either way, freshly cut grass emits a compound that repels damaging insects and attracts insects with a protective function.

It’s just one of the many ways that plants are far more complex than we had ever previously imagined.  WTF fun facts

Source: “Mown grass smell sends SOS for help in resisting insect attacks” — ScienceDaily

WTF Fun Fact 12703 – The Ancient Art of Topiary

The art of topiary has a long history and going in and out of style. And we’re not exactly sure who made the first shaped and trained tree or shrub or why.

While the word “topiary” is a 16th-century English term, it comes from the Lain topiarius, meaning ornamental gardener. You can find that word in letters from 1st/2nd century CE author Pliny the Younger’s letters. He described the Tuscan villa of Gaius Matius Calvinus as having many animals and other figures made out of cypress. He introduced the art to his friend Julius Caesar.

When the Roman Empire collapsed, no one really had time for topiary (or for ornamental gardens at all) for a couple of hundred years, although the art was largely preserved among monks who manicured their gardens. (Even a manicured hedge is technically a topiary.)

The artistic boom of the Renaissance brought topiary back into favor among those who could afford ornamental gardens and Italian villas were home to everything from topiary animals to giant bushy obelisks and pyramids.

Of course, many of us associate topiary with the French because of the gardens of Versailles, which is still a premier place to view them to this day. But each country had its own way of doing things – some favored large cones, others liked things at smaller scales.

English gardens are also famous for topiaries, but things got a bit out of hand as people became obsessed with more elaborate shapes and sizes.

By the 18th century, topiary was primed for a take-down as being both too trendy and too ridiculous in some of its forms. So when satirist Alexander Pope wrote a widely-read essay called “Verdant Sculpture” in the newspaper in September 1713, it seemed so spot-on that people were soon embarrassed by their elaborate mazes and giant tree animals. By the 1730s, many mansions had their topiaries removed as people decided they were unstylish in light of the mocking.

Of course, people who didn’t care about the trendiest way to garden still had them, but aristocrats didn’t push the art forward for another century and a half.

By the 1870s, the style became popular in England again and remains popular today.

The U.S. caught up to the gardening trend in the 1950s and 60s when Walt Disney decided to introduce topiaries to Disney World in the shape of his cartoon characters. Now topiary was portable as well and could be brought indoors, which coincided with the rise in popularity of the U.S. houseplant.

(And let’s not forget that many of us aged 40 and up remember Edward Scissorhands as the ultimate topiarist!)

Now you can find topiary around the world in all shapes and sizes, and it shows no sign of going out of style any time soon. – WTF fun facts

Source: “Topiary Tango” — Center for Architecture

WTF Fact 12430 – The Truth About Sunflowers

Don’t you just love sunflower season? Ok, it might be a bit too hot for some of us, but these big, happy flowers are a fun way to bring some sunshine to your yard or home.

If you’ve seen the sunflower a lot these days, it’s because it’s also the national flower of Ukraine. Girls would weave smaller varieties into flower crowns, and they’re commonly found on traditional embroidery. But the sunflower originated on the North American continent, in what is not the Western United States. In fact, it’s the only flower used for seed that originated in the US.

It wasn’t until the 1550s that Spanish conquerors brought the sunflower to Europe. Sunflowers have many practical uses since they can be pressed for sunflower oil, and the seeds are edible. Ironically, it wasn’t until the flowers reached Russia that they were seen as beautiful for display.

But the more fascinating thing about the sunflower might just be that – biologically speaking – what we consider to be one flower is actually thousands of tiny flowers. Those little brown things we think of as…well, what do we call those?… Anyway, those are individual flowers! And so are the petals.

That means a sunflower contains thousands (usually between 1000 and 2000) of individual flowers all held together by that impressive receptible base. The brown flowers develop into seeds, while the yellow petals (or “ray flowers”) simply wither.

Another cool fact about sunflowers is that they are heliotropic, which means the flowering head (which we guess is technically the correct phrase for what we refer to as a flower) turns with the sun for maximum exposure.

So if you set a vase of sunflowers on a table near a window and notice them all “looking” outside during the day, don’t assume someone turned the vase! The flower did that all on its own. – WTF fun facts 

Source: “Sunflower: An American Native” — University of Missouri, Department of Agronomy