September 29, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

Plants Teach Humans About Design

Plants, too, come loaded with graduate-level information they communicate to anyone willing to observe.

Lignin is In. Plant waste is a treasure chest waiting to be exploited, and yet it is discarded or burned by paper mills and ethanol treatment centers. Science Daily says it is “much more valuable than just as waste.” Think of the value in just a pile of wheat straw:

“If biofuels are to become a reality, we need to realize the industrial potential of lignin and get more value from it,” she says. “Seeing the complexity and richness of its functional groups, there are various potential applications of lignin by converting it in variety of value added products like high performance carbon fibre, bio-oil and vanillin, to name a few.”

Lignin is like ore to miners. And it is plentiful in the world. There’s been a race to get the jewels out with better “biorefining” methods. A research article in Science Advances announces a new method for “Rapid and near-complete dissolution of wood lignin at ≤80°C by a recyclable acid hydrotrope.” That’s almost half the temperature (176 °F) than existing processes require. “Approximately 90% of poplar wood (NE222) lignin can be dissolved at 80°C in 20 min” by this new method.

Plant traffic. Frustrated with traffic jams in your daily commute? “Plants have worked out a way to avoid internal traffic jams that could inspire frustrated commuters and traffic planners,” says Science Daily cheerfully. The findings that came “totally out of the blue” to researchers in the UK and Japan. But how can this be, when plants don’t move? Actually, their components move inside cells and vessels. The researchers watched as test plants transported boron out of the soil.

The team noticed that although boron in the soil does not vary unexpectedly, plants have developed elaborate and energy-sapping systems that rapidly respond to boron. These include genetically programmed transporters that respond very rapidly to changes in the levels of boron surrounding the root.

When the scientists slowed down the plant’s regulation system, traffic jams resulted similar to those on freeways. One researcher gave the credit to Darwin: “We conclude that plants have evolved systems to avoid internal traffic jams.” Dr Veronica Grieneisen committed the faulty reference twice:

“This research has made us aware that to help plants adapt to harsher environments, we should not only focus on how they handle the external environment, but also consider internal struggles the plants have to overcome — such as intrinsic traffic jams.

Moreover, the principles of the research can be applied to road traffic systems and to other transport systems that we encounter in modern life, says Dr Grieneisen. Plants have evolved simple solutions for overcoming these traffic jams and these can inspire solutions for roads all over the world.

It’s hard to see how the Stuff Happens Law could inspire anything. Solutions we know of are always designed by purposeful, intelligent causes.

Light harvesting. Design so good scientists want to imitate it has been laid at the feet of the Bearded Buddha. explains in “Borrowing from nature to tap the power of the sun.” Julianna Photopoulos boasts that engineers have out-created the secular creator:

Over hundreds of millions of years, evolution has refined a process that allows plants to use the sun’s energy to turn carbon dioxide and water into the sugary fuel they need to grow.

The elegant series of biochemical reactions involved in this process are some of the fundamental building blocks of life on this planet.

But now scientists have beaten nature at its own game by creating a semi-artificial leaf that incorporates some of the components honed by evolution to produce a device that is up to six times more efficient.

Photopoulos has thus personified Nature as a creator who uses the Stuff Happens Law to produce elegance. But she overlooks the possibility that plants have a reason for not revving up electron transfer as high as the German scientists did: it might burn their machinery. Plants have various quenching mechanisms to prevent overheating (see Evolution News for an example). More importantly, if the scientists were “borrowing from nature” in a technique that “incorporates some of the components” used in photosynthesis, then they are plagiarists. We would be more impressed if they got their own dirt and made everything from scratch.

Promote the Biomimetics Gold Rush! It’s good for everyone except Darwin Supremacists.


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