Hedera algeriensis
Home » Darwin connection IV [Or, nanotech item No. 2]

Darwin connection IV [Or, nanotech item No. 2]

An investigation into the molecular basis of the adhesive that allows Hedera helix to cling to vertical structures shows that the nanoparticles identified in the adhesive are predominantly composed of arabinogalactan proteins.

I’m beginning to suspect that there is a rule – maybe unwritten, but a rule nonetheless – that English Victorian naturalist supreme, Charles Darwin (‘CD’) has to have had a hand in every biological phenomenon one might wish to study in the 20th and 21st centuries. After all, if you investigate anything relating to evolution, Darwin (and Wallace!) has already been there; auxins, and plant hormones more generally, Darwin (and son Francis) anticipated them; plant movements, Darwin & Son again; plant intelligence, etc. It’s no surprise therefore that the ‘spirit of Darwin’ is behind this month’s most tenacious item, ivy.

Hedera algeriensis
Hedera algeriensis. Image Digigalos / Wikipedia.

Picking up where CD left off 150 years previously (see p. 106 here), Yujian Huanga et al. have investigated the molecular basis of the adhesive that allows Hedera helix to cling to vertical structures. They show that the nanoparticles – previously identified in the adhesive – are predominantly composed of arabinogalactan proteins (AGPs), and propose that calcium-driven electrostatic interactions between the AGP nanoparticles generate cross-linking of the exuded adhesive. This favours its subsequent curing (hardening), which promotes ‘mechanical interlocking’ (i.e. adhesion) between the adventitious roots of the plant (which secrete the adhesive) and the surface of the substrate.

The team suggest that this work ‘may forward the progress toward understanding the general principles underlying diverse botanic adhesives’. Or, even ‘new approaches to wound healing, stronger armor for the military and maybe even cosmetics with better staying power’. Plant research that could make a real difference to so many varied aspects of the human experience, then.

However, you don’t necessarily need adhesives to provide adhesion, as Jiafu Tan et al. demonstrate with trichomes in cotton. When cotton and trichomes are mentioned together many people will think of so-called cotton fibres and their role as a clothing fibre. But, this work deals with development of the flower of Gossypium hirsutum and the trichomes present within the epidermis of its petals.

They show that these ‘hairs’ are essential for maintenance of correct flower bud shape through a mechanical entanglement of the trichomes on adjacent petals. This enmeshing anchors the edges to counter the opposing force generated by asymmetric expansion of overlapping petals. Whilst it is interesting to note that development of the commercial product Velcro® was inspired by plants, it’s quite another thing to discover that plants use a Velcro-like mechanism in their own biology. I don’t know about you, but I could get rather attached to this sort of work…

Nigel Chaffey

I am a Botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international phytological organ for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I also continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Botany One. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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