At Medicago, we have long believed in the power of plants to help change the world.

The world is becoming more connected and interdependent. As a result, people are looking for ways to live more sustainable lifestyles. This has led to innovations in the way we interact with nature. At Medicago, we have long believed in the power of plants to help change the world, but you would be surprised to learn of other innovations that touch our lives that have been inspired by plants.

Here are our top five!

Lotus leaves – turning the tide on ocean oil spills

Oil spills in the ocean are a costly and tricky operation to take care of. There are several methods using well-known substances, such as sawdust that soaks up oil as well as water. However, this makes disposal and handling much more expensive and difficult.

Scientists are exploring how lotus leaves and a type of aquatic fern called Salvinia could turn the tide in cleaning up oil spills.[i]

Researchers discovered that the hairy-leaved plants can absorb oil particles while repelling water to create a new coating. They hope that by upscaling the technology they will have a cost-effective tool for environmental clean-ups.1

A plant-created solution to combat one of the biggest ecological threats – plastic

The threat plastic poses to our planet is well documented as one of our biggest environmental challenges. It is not just the damage that plastic can cause when it is thrown away, but the process of developing plastic is energy intensive, uses hazardous chemicals, and releases additional CO2 into the atmosphere.[ii]

New plastic alternatives are being developed using plants. For example, one type is a biodegradable and compostable plastic biopolymer made from a polyhydroxyalkanoate backbone, which is produced by organisms such as algae. Not only does it degrade quicker and easier compared to traditional plastics, but the processes used to create the biopolymers are 100% renewable sources.2

Plant-inspired WALL-E self-regulating robots

Robotics are playing an increasing role in all parts of our lives and improving the way we work. Like most things that are mechanical, they can malfunction and breakdown. Repair requires human intervention that takes time and resources. However, scientists have found a new way to use plants to create a new generation of robots that can repair themselves.

Plant robots are made from folded paper cutouts and sugar gel, which do not have batteries or motors, but instead, their simple organic compound follows the instruction of biochemical reactions rather than pre-programmed software.[iii]

Like plants which use heliotropism to grow towards sunlight and nyctinasty, these organic machines use a transpiration-like process with hydration and dehydration to send feedback, which maximizes the amount of solar energy available to the leaves.3

A sticky plant that inspired a new kind of zip

Inspired by burrs from the burdock plant stuck in his dog’s fur, Swiss engineer, George de Mestral, made a discovery in 1948 that would become as famous as the paperclip. Examining the burs under a microscope revealed thousands of tiny hooks that efficiently bound themselves to nearly any fabric that passed by. From this observation, George de Mestral took the hooks he had seen in the burs and combined them with simple loops of fabric. He theorized that the tiny hooks would catch in the loops, and they would stick together. Velcro was created, a name that came from the French words for velvet (“velours”) and hook (“crochet”) and which has become ubiquitous around the world.[iv]

A growing need for new medicines

Medicine has often taken inspiration from nature and many of the modern treatments today have been derived from natural sources often found at the bottom of oceans or in jungles.

The use of transitory modified plants as bioreactors is an exciting area of research principally due to their product safety and scale up flexibility.[v]

The host plant is transitory modified through the insertion and expression of new genes, which is used to produce bioactive peptides, vaccine antigens, antibodies, diagnostic proteins, nutritional supplements, enzymes, and biodegradable plastics.

[i] The Times. ‘Lotus leaf inspires creation of oil clean up mesh’, 18 April 2015, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/lotus-leaf-inspires-creation-of-oil-clean-up-mesh-qzqnm8g7gkm Last accessed: June 2022

[ii] AskNature.com. ‘High Performance Catalyst System Inspired by Plants’ https://asknature.org/innovation/high-performance-catalyst-system-inspired-by-plants/ Last accessed: June 2022

[iii] Cezan SD et al. ‘Self-Regulating Plant Robots: Bioinspired Heliotropism and Nyctinasty.’ Soft Robot. 2020 Aug;7(4):444-450. doi: 10.1089/soro.2019.0036. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31990639 Last accessed: June 2022

[iv] Velcro. ‘How Velcro® Brand Fasteners Were Invented’, 22 June 2018, https://www.velcro.co.uk/blog/2018/06/how-velcro-brand-fasteners-were-invented/ Last accessed: June 2022

[v] Sharma AK et al. ‘Plants as bioreactors: Recent developments and emerging opportunities.’, Biotechnol Adv. 2009 Nov-Dec;27(6):811-832. doi: 10.1016/j.biotechadv.2009.06.004. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7125752/ Last accessed: June 2022