By looking at the colour and shape of a synthetic material, scientists have revealed how plants respond to different chemicals.
It’s a new way of understanding the chemistry of plants and animals, which could pave the way for new treatments for environmental problems, and help scientists to understand the behaviour of plants.
The discovery is part of a £30 million ($44 million) project called Synthetic Materials from Cheating Grass which aims to “transform the chemistry and biology of plants” in the hope of developing a new chemical-free synthetic material.
The new material could be used in the production of new biodegradable and renewable biofuels.
Scientists in the UK are developing a range of new compounds to exploit in plants, but the new Synthetic Material from Cheatgrass is one of the first synthetic materials to mimic the behaviour and characteristics of natural organisms.
“It’s not something you find in nature, it’s not what’s on the shelves in a supermarket, it comes from nature,” said Professor Daniel Kipnis from the University of Bristol.
“This material is a new approach to creating synthetic materials that mimic the chemistry in nature.”
Scientists in Bristol and the UK developed a range the first two synthetic materials of the synthetic materials group to mimic nature, and the third to mimic natural animals.
“These are really exciting discoveries because it allows us to study the behaviour in natural organisms that we might not be able to study otherwise,” said Dr Michael Dore, the lead author of the research from the Department of Biotechnology and Biomedical Sciences at the University.
“The fact that they mimic the environment they’re in means we can get a glimpse of how these animals respond to certain chemicals, and what their responses are like in the wild,” he said.
“We can get clues as to how plants react to different environmental chemicals and then we can learn more about how they respond to these chemicals in the laboratory.”
There are many opportunities for synthetic materials, and this is one example of how they could be applied to other biological processes.
“The new synthetic materials are derived from an animal known as a “cheatinggrass”, which is native to South America.
The researchers first identified a new set of synthetic materials from a cheating grass.”
Cheating grass is a native species, and it is a great model for studying how plants metabolise different environmental compounds,” said Prof Kiplis.”
As a native grass, it has been known for hundreds of years that it uses certain chemical substances to make its living.
“One of the things that makes this species so fascinating is that it has a natural defence mechanism called chelation, which we have shown is able to kill bacteria, fungi and viruses.”
The team identified a chemical compound that mimics the behaviour, or chemical properties, of a chelation reaction in a cheater grass, and used that information to develop a new material that mimicked the chelation in a natural animal.
“Our first discovery of this material was that it mimicked chelation reactions in a living cheater, and that it is chemically similar to chelation proteins found in other native species,” said Kipis.
“So, we have created a new natural material that has mimicked those properties in a native animal, which is a really exciting discovery.”
Dr Kipides team then used the new synthetic substances in their next project, which involved using the material in a number of other plants, including the carrot, and in animals, including mice.
“What we’re finding is that these synthetic materials can mimic natural chemical properties of plants in a range, from their response to certain organic molecules to their responses to certain types of viruses,” said Dore.
“That’s a really fascinating insight into how these chemicals work in plants.”
But they also have potential applications in other organisms.
“Dr Dore said that the team was still developing the materials, but said it was possible that the material could help scientists in other areas.”
I think the most exciting thing is that we can now study the chemistry, and therefore the behaviour under stress of different environmental conditions,” he added.”
By studying the chemistry under stress, we can develop new ways of understanding how plants behave, and we can then use that information in the lab to improve our own synthetic materials.