We often place a lot of hope in future technologies to solve our global problems, some may argue too much. But new technologies can be exciting and can inspire ingenuity, invention and innovation in a variety of directions. Here we list some plant discoveries inspiring new technologies.
Algae is a plant of many uses – it can be eaten, burned for heat, or used to produce hydrogen, methane, biodiesel, or fertilizer, and so is useful in producing both food and fuel. Its growth also requires the uptake of large amounts of CO2. Its potential as a renewable source of fuel has received much attention and an algaculture biodiesel plant is already in operation producing 4.4 million gallons of algal oil per year. In a recent paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Utah State University researchers in a worldwide assessment of microalgae productivity potential, found that the ability of algae to supply our energy needs was both significant and promising. Microalgae produces much higher yields of fuel-producing biomass than other traditional biofuels and it doesn’t compete for land with food crops.
Guayule and Russian Dandelion
Guayule is a desert plant native to North America that can produce rubber. Most natural rubber latex is produced from one breed of rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis. Given that the Asian market, which has a monopoly on the production of latex, has seen supply constraints and increasing prices, it makes sense to search for an alternative. Hevea brasiliensis is also vulnerable to several pests, can only be grown in tropical zones and can cause allergic reactions, more support for developing an alternative. And Guayule is one of them. Latex made from guayule performs better than traditional latex, and it’s allergy-free. Being marketed as environmentally-friendly tires, the Dutch tire company, Apollo Vredestein, has begun creating tires from guayule and Russian dandelion, the latter being easier to extract rubber from.
But Guayule has many uses, being used as a source of biomass in Spain and in latex products in medical, scientific and contraceptive markets are being produced and marketed by Yulex. Guayule also produces resin, which can be used in a variety of products such as paint, paper and soap. There is also the potential to create lumber products and, due to its high energy content, use it in cellulosic ethanol and syngas technologies. Most exciting of all, the plant, being a desert plant, requires little in the way of water or fertilizer.
We might think about maize in terms of high fructose syrup but maize can also be used to produce plastic: biodegradable corn plastic or PLA. As we know plastic never goes away and can be toxic to animals and habitats. Biodegradable plastic has the potential to provide the same benefits but without the environmental damage and reliance on fossil fuels. PLA also uses 65% less energy in its production than conventional plastic, conatins no toxins and generates 68% fewer greenhouse gases.
For the last few years, companies such as Newman’s Own Organics and Wild Oats have been some PLA products, but more recently Wal-Mart announced that it would sell some produce in PLA containers, specifically 114 million PLA containers a year, equating to some 800,000 barrels of oil.
PLA does have its drawbacks though. For example, biodegradtion of PLA needs to take place in composting facilities few have access to and current large-scale composters may not be able to handle the job should PLA significantly increase in use. If this should happen large amounts of PLA may end in landfills where there is little evidence that it breaks down any faster than regular plastic. Alongside the development and use of PLA, the composting industry thus needs to develop to meet capacity. PLA also must be kept separate from other recycling materials such as PET. Also using maize for plastic, as with biofuels, diverts land used for food to non-food products and industrial maize production has a large environmental cost. A renewable plastic source that will break down, and can be used as fertilizer, could be revolutionary although ensuring the farming of maize and the disposal of PLA is sustainable is critical.
The lotus plant commonly grows in muddy waters, but, due to “microscopic structures on the leaf (that) trap air bubbles and repel water with a waxy coating”, it manages to retain clean leaves, water rolling off the leaves, effectively self-cleaning. This is known as the Lotus Effect. Other plants have since been discovered to have a similar lotus leaf effect, including the nasturtium, the taro and the prickly pear cactus. These microscopic structures on the leaf known as papillae help water stay in a spherical form, rather than spreading out and wetting the leaf. This effect was first discovered in the 1960s and was used in developing self-cleaning glass.
Through nanotechnology the lotus effect can and is be applied to materials, creating water-, bacteria-, dirt-repellent surfaces. Examples of its use are in electronic equipment such as mobile phones, clothing and footwear. The range of applications is only beginning to be discovered and such coatings could become more widely used if made safer and less dependent on chemicals. From a sustainability perspective this could increase the life cycle of many materials and resources.
Bananas genetically modified to protect against Hepatitis B, measles, and the dysentery-causing Norwalk virus is the result of a decade of research at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell University, research now in human clinical trials. Other organisations are also pursuing the development of edible vaccines to try to tackle the WHO’s estimation that 10 million children die in developing countries each year from infectious diseases that could be prevented with vaccines.
The first human trials of edible plant vaccines began in 1997 at UMSM’s Center for Vaccine Development where anti-E-coli potatoes were fed to 20 participants, 19 of which produced the appropriate antibodies with no adverse reactions.
Existing vaccines are particularly difficult to access in developing countries due to being expensive, requiring a skilled person to administer, requiring sterile needles and refrigeration, difficult when power supply is intermittent. Alternatively plant edible vaccines could prove less expensive, easier to access and won’t require the use of needles, which if re-used can transmit diseases. Plants, fruits and vegetables can be eaten raw as cooking can “break down the proteins that provoke the needed immune response”, are modified, the required antigen gene inserted into the plant’s DNA. Plant material can also be dried, mixed into a powder and used to make tablets or capsules to be swallowed directly in order to ensure that all the powder contains equal amount of the active ingredients, despite concentrations likely varying between plants.
Further edible vaccines being developed include cervical cancer and measles vaccinations in tobacco plants, Norwalk virus vaccines in tomatoes, dengue and uterine cancer vaccines in lettuce as well as edible vaccines targeting rabies and hepatitis-B. And research is being conducted into edible vaccines against malaria and HIV. Although some way off the potential of this research is enormous. Vaccines, grown and administered locally and accessible to all would tackle what are preventable but widespread and lethal diseases.