Plant Cuttings

Outer space comes to Cambridge

Some saxifrages are almost literally out of this world.

We rightly celebrate the ability of plants to manufacture a wide range of organic compounds – many of whose function(s) we don’t yet understand (and to cover our ignorance we call them secondary metabolites or secondary plant compoundsSPCs). But, plants are also adept at creating interesting inorganic compounds too.

Saxifraga decipiens
Saxifraga decipiens. Photo: Anneli Salo / Wikipedia

Arguably, nowhere has this recently been better demonstrated than by Raymond Wightman et al. working with saxifrages (plants of the genus Saxifraga). Scrutinising the white crust that develops on the leaves of Saxifraga scardica they found it to be composed of vaterite – a form of calcium
carbonate. More often associated with outer space – vaterite has been detected in planetary objects in the Solar System and meteorites – it does occur on Earth, but is rare and previously only known from geological and zoological sources. Its presence in plants is therefore novel.

While this discovery poses questions of the mineral’s role in the biology of the plant (which are discussed in the Flora paper), its apparent abundance is also of biomedical interest because vaterite nanoparticles have potential for targeted delivery of anti-cancer drugs.

Since attempts to manufacture vaterite synthetically have proved difficult, this ready-made botanical source provides another example of the health-promoting power of plants. And where was this biomedical breakthrough made?* Not in some far-flung alpine habitat (as might be expected for Saxifraga spp.), but in the botanic garden of Cambridge University in the UK, using specimens from their National Collection of European Saxifrages. Proving – once again (if any further proof were needed…) – that amazing plant discoveries are all around us.

*In the interests of balance, it should be pointed out that vaterite has another, albeit less glamorous, use in improving the quality of papers for inkjet printing by reducing the lateral spread of ink.

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