Lab Talk: heavy metal and bionic plants

Researchers explain two exciting new papers.

Daniel Rodgers-Pryor

Birds, heavy metal and architecture

Flocks of starlings form marvellous chorus lines moving in perfect synchrony without any master choreographer. Modelling these formations with computers shows us how the pattern occurs: each bird merely shadows its neighbour. Fans of heavy metal may not have much in common with starlings, but current research shows that they move in a similar way when packed together at concerts. YouTube videos allowed the Cornell University researchers to produce flocking models of metal-heads.

There were mosh pits where the most active fans crowd together and throw themselves at each other, and circle pits where tight groups rotate as if in a whirlpool. As with flocks of birds, the simplicity of this model gives us insight into the emergent behaviours of crowds.

Predicting these behaviours is essential for architectural design and safety planning.

Paper: Collective Motion of Humans in Mosh and Circle Pits at Heavy Metal Concerts. Physical Review Letters, 2013, vol 110, p 228701

Gonzalo Estavillo

Bionic plants get a photosynthetic boost

The idea of a bionic man as portrayed in the 1970s TV show The Six Million Dollar Man, still seems far-fetched. Now a team of engineers in nanotechnology and biologists at the MIT has unveiled the first bionic plant.

They found that treating plants with single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs) – which are known for their light-harvesting ability – can potentially augment a leaf’s light absorption. In isolated chloroplasts – the plant organelle where natural photosynthesis takes place – the scientists showed the SWNTs were spontaneously sucked inside the chloroplast, where they boosted photosynthetic activity to levels three times higher than that of controls.

It is still unclear if the observed boost to light harvesting will translate into more carbon dioxide converted into sugars, but the findings could open up exciting opportunities to improve plant productivity.

Paper: Plant nanobionics approach to augment photosynthesis and biochemical sensing, Nature Materials, 2014, 3, 400–408

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