Plant growth researchers play with Lego. For science (Wired UK)

Ludovico Cademartiri and Kara Lind, a collaborating doctoral student, with the microenvironments they have built from Lego. The colours inside the Lego correspond to different plant nutrients.
Ludovico Cademartiri and Kara Lind, a collaborating doctoral student, with the microenvironments they have built from Lego. The colours inside the Lego correspond to different plant nutrients.Bob Elbert

A team of material scientists has developed a cheap and easy way
to study plant growth in a controlled way — using Lego.

In possibly the first instance a scientist has ever had the need
to open an article thus: “Lego bricks are commercially
available interlocking pieces of plastic that are conventionally
used as toys.” Ludovico
and his fellow research scientists at Iowa State
University have proposed a new and delightful method for
reproducing lab-controlled conditions in a simple way, in order to
investigate how the environment impacts plant growth. The idea was
to create something that any researcher, anywhere in the globe,
could relatively easily replicate. It also had to be modular and
scalable, so adaptations could be straightforward, as well as
transparent and chemically inert, so as to control the environment
precisely to measure different effects.

“Forget for a minute that they’re used as toys,” Cademartiri
said in a statement (as if we could). “They’re actually pieces of
high-quality plastic, built to extraordinary standards of
precision, that you can use to build stuff.” It sounds an awful lot
like a great advert for Lego. But in fact, the suggetiom could be
the answer a lot of problems researchers find themselves stuck

Cademartiri, along with his team of collaborators, explains in
the journal PLOS
: “Scientists or engineers interested in manipulating
the environment of cm-scale organisms (e.g. plants) have remarkably
few convenient tools at their disposal. This paucity is partly due
to the demanding design requirements associated with larger scales
(e.g. cost). This liability is particularly evident in the study of
plants and their root systems.” Tests in the lab might use
microfluids to replicate different types of soil — hydrogels can
be modified, for instance, to mimic the chemical compositions or
structure of a particular type of soil. These are expensive though,
and to fill a greenhouse with this type of experiment would be
costly if you wanted to test, say, a few hundered plants. We need
to develop microenvironments, suggest the Iowa team.

Now the study was not designed simply as a way for Cademartiri
to relive their childhood love of Lego. Evaluating the impact of
the environment on plant growth is vital for preserving our future
food supplies. “The provision of food to the global human
population is under severe pressure (our supply of food is
predicted to be far below demand by 2050) and depends on plant
roots,” writes the team, indicating that 97.6 percent of global
calorie consumption is derived from plants.

“Roots influence a plant’s yield and whether a plant will
survive stresses. We know that root growth is strongly affected by
its environment, soil, but our mechanistic understanding of these
effects is imperfect, and strongly limited by technical
challenges.” Roots can be affected adversely by gravity, light,
electric fields, and much more.

With this in mind, the team set about getting its Lego. They
used the “pick-a-brick” mechanism on the toy company’s website, and
its free design software to test structures before building. The
team enthrals that the number of different structures they can make
with the bricks, ranging from 8 x 8 x 6mm to 48 x 8 x 50mm, is
“staggering” — “six identical bricks can form almost a billion
different structures”. The team set about using transparent
hydrogels to grow seeds to prove the bricks, once sterilised, could
hold liquid-like substances and remain configurable part way
through any one experiment. The bricks did need to be placed in the
freezer beforehand, however, in order to prevent any leaks.

The team argues the Lego bricks are superior to other methods,
because they can actually replicate air pockets and definitive
barriers that might exist in the real world among farms. The
polycarbonate the bricks are made from can be easily sterilised,
and the brings will not react with other chemicals — they’re safe
for kids, and plant growth.

The team concludes: “We demonstrated that Lego-based
environments can scale to the size of the organism under
consideration, allow for real time monitoring of root systems in
3D,  be structurally reconfigured to change the environment of
an organism during its development, and generate precisely
controlled heterogeneities (i.e., solid barriers, air pockets,
chemical and soil biota gradients) in an otherwise homogeneous
growing medium.” They plan on working on the system further,
developing something of a toolkit for researchers that want to
create a stable environment, quickly and cheaply.

They conclude: “Compelling opportunities lie in extending our
approach to chemically synthesised bricks, Lego-compatible
3D-printed bricks and objects, and commercial bricks from other
manufacturers. Our laboratory will be introducing a set of
integrated tools for the fabrication of frugal but sophisticated
cm-scale environments for the study of plants and other

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