It seems lignin is a bit of a problem. Its presence in a tree makes processing the wood into various products more difficult. (Of course, some people appreciate trees for other reasons both practical [carbon sequestration?] and/or aesthetic.)
In any event, scientists have been working on ways to reduce the amount of lignin in poplar trees since at least 2014 (see my April 7, 2014 posting titled ‘Good lignin, bad lignin: Florida researchers use plant waste to create lignin nanotubes while researchers in British Columbia develop trees with less lignin’; scroll down about 40% of the way for the ‘less lignin’ story).
(I don’t believe the 2014 research was accomplished with the CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-Cas9 technique as it had only been developed in 2012.)
The latest in the quest to reduce the amount of lignin of poplar trees comes from a Belgian/US team, from an Oct. 6, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily,
Researchers led by prof. Wout Boerjan (VIB-UGent [Ghent University] Center for Plant Systems Biology) have discovered a way to stably finetune the amount of lignin in poplar by applying CRISPR/Cas9 technology. Lignin is one of the main structural substances in plants and it makes processing wood into, for example, paper difficult. This study is an important breakthrough in the development of wood resources for the production of paper with a lower carbon footprint, biofuels, and other bio-based materials. Their work, in collaboration with VIVES University College (Roeselare, Belgium) and University of Wisconsin (USA) appears in Nature Communications.
Today’s fossil-based economy results in a net increase of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere and is a major cause of global climate change. To counter this, a shift towards a circular and bio-based economy is essential. Woody biomass can play a crucial role in such a bio-based economy by serving as a renewable and carbon-neutral resource for the production of many chemicals. Unfortunately, the presence of lignin hinders the processing of wood into bio-based products.
Prof. Wout Boerjan (VIB-UGent): “A few years ago, we performed a field trial with poplars that were engineered to make wood containing less lignin. Most plants showed large improvements in processing efficiency for many possible applications. The downside, however, was that the reduction in lignin accomplished with the technology we used then – RNA interference – was unstable and the trees grew less tall.”
Undeterred, the researchers went looking for a solution. They employed the recent CRISPR/Cas9 technology in poplar to lower the lignin amount in a stable way, without causing a biomass yield penalty. In other words, the trees grew just as well and as tall as those without genetic changes.
Dr. Barbara De Meester (VIB-UGent): “Poplar is a diploid species, meaning every gene is present in two copies. Using CRISPR/Cas9, we introduced specific changes in both copies of a gene that is crucial for the biosynthesis of lignin. We inactivated one copy of the gene, and only partially inactivated the other. The resulting poplar line had a stable 10% reduction in lignin amount while it grew normally in the greenhouse. Wood from the engineered trees had an up to 41% increase in processing efficiency”.
Dr. Ruben Vanholme (VIB-UGent): “The mutations that we have introduced through CRISPR/Cas9 are similar to those that spontaneously arise in nature. The advantage of the CRISPR/Cas9 method is that the beneficial mutations can be directly introduced into the DNA of highly productive tree varieties in only a fraction of the time it would take by a classical breeding strategy.”
The applications of this method are not only restricted to lignin but might also be useful to engineer other traits in crops, providing a versatile new breeding tool to improve agricultural productivity.
In fact, I have two items about fungi and I’m starting with the essay first.
Giving thanks for fungi
Antonis Rokas, professor at Venderbilt University (Nashville, Tennessee, US), has written a November 25, 2019 essay for The Conversation (h/t phys.org Nov.26.19) featuring fungi and food, Note: Links have been removed),
I am an evolutionary biologist studying fungi, a group of microbes whose domestication has given us many tasty products. I’ve long been fascinated by two questions: What are the genetic changes that led to their domestication? And how on Earth did our ancestors figure out how to domesticate them?
The hybrids in your lager
As far as domestication is concerned, it is hard to top the honing of brewer’s yeast. The cornerstone of the baking, brewing and wine-making industries, brewer’s yeast has the remarkable ability to turn the sugars of plant fruits and grains into alcohol. How did brewer’s yeast evolve this flexibility?
By discovering new yeast species and sequencing their genomes, scientists know that some yeasts used in brewing are hybrids; that is, they’re descendants of ancient mating unions of individuals from two different yeast species. Hybrids tend to resemble both parental species – think of wholpins (whale-dolphin) or ligers (lion-tiger).
… What is still unknown is whether hybridization is the norm or the exception in the yeasts that humans have used for making fermented beverages for millennia.
To address this question, a team led by graduate student Quinn Langdon at the University of Wisconsin and another team led by postdoctoral fellow Brigida Gallone at the Universities of Ghent and Leuven in Belgium examined the genomes of hundreds of yeasts involved in brewing and wine making. Their bottom line? Hybrids rule.
For example, a quarter of yeasts collected from industrial environments, including beer and wine manufacturers, are hybrids.
The mutants in your cheese
Comparing the genomes of domesticated fungi to their wild relatives helps scientists understand the genetic changes that gave rise to some favorite foods and drinks. But how did our ancestors actually domesticate these wild fungi? None of us was there to witness how it all started. To solve this mystery, scientists are experimenting with wild fungi to see if they can evolve into organisms resembling those that we use to make our food today.
Benjamin Wolfe, a microbiologist at Tufts University, and his team addressed this question by taking wild Penicillium mold and growing the samples for one month in his lab on a substance that included cheese. That may sound like a short period for people, but it is one that spans many generations for fungi.
The wild fungi are very closely related to fungal strains used by the cheese industry in the making of Camembert cheese, but look very different from them. For example, wild strains are green and smell, well, moldy compared to the white and odorless industrial strains.
For Wolfe, the big question was whether he could experimentally recreate, and to what degree, the process of domestication. What did the wild strains look and smell like after a month of growth on cheese? Remarkably, what he and his team found was that, at the end of the experiment, the wild strains looked much more similar to known industrial strains than to their wild ancestor. For example, they were white in color and smelled much less moldy.
… how did the wild strain turn into a domesticated version? Did it mutate? By sequencing the genomes of both the wild ancestors and the domesticated descendants, and measuring the activity of the genes while growing on cheese, Wolfe’s team figured out that these changes did not happen through mutations in the organisms’ genomes. Rather, they most likely occurred through chemical alterations that modify the activity of specific genes but don’t actually change the genetic code. Such so-called epigenetic modifications can occur much faster than mutations.
Fantastic Fungi Futures (FFF) Nov. 29, Dec. 1, and Dec. 4, 2019 events in Toronto, Canada
The ArtSci Salon emailed me a November 23, 2019 announcement about a special series being presented in partnership with the Mycological Society of Toronto (MST) on the topic of fungi,
Fantastic Fungi Futures a discussion, a mini exhibition, a special screening, and a workshop revolving around Fungi and their versatile nature.
NOV 29 , 6:00-8:00 PM Fantastic Fungi Futures (FFF): a roundtable discussion and popup exhibition.
Join us for a roundtable discussion. what are the potentials of fungi? Our guests will share their research, as well as professional and artistic practice dealing with the taxonomy and the toxicology, the health benefits and the potentials for sustainability, as well as the artistic and architectural virtues of fungi and mushrooms. The Exhibition will feature photos and objects created by local and Canadian artists who have been working with mushrooms and fungi.
This discussion is in anticipation of the special screening of Fantastic Fungi at the HotDocs Cinema on Dec 1  our guests:James Scott,Occupational & Environmental Health, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, UofT; Marshall Tyler, Director of Research, Field Trip, Toronto; Rotem Petranker, PhD student, Social Psychology, York University; Nourin Aman, PhD student, fungal biology and Systematics lab, Punjab University; Sydney Gram, PhD student, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology student researcher (UofT/ROM); [and] Tosca Teran, Interdisciplinary artist.
DEC. 4 , 7:00-10:00PM Multi-species entanglements:Sculpting with Mycelium, @InterAccess, 950 Dupont St., Unit 1
This workshop is a continuation of ArtSci Salon’s Fantastic Fungi Futures event and the HotDocs screening of Fantastic Fungi.this workshop is open to public to attend, however, pre-registration is required. $5.00 to form a mycelium bowl to take home.
During this workshop Tosca Teran introduces the amazing potential of Mycelium for collaboration at the intersection of art and science. Participants learn how to transform their kitchens and closets in to safe, mini-Mycelium biolabs and have the option to leave the workshop with a live Mycelium planter/bowl form, as well as a wide array of possibilities of how they might work with this sustainable bio-material.
Nourin Aman is a PhD student at fungal biology and Systematics lab at Punjab University, Lahore, Pakistan. She is currently a visiting PhD student at the Mycology lab, Royal Ontario Museum. Her research revolves around comparison between macrofungal biodiversity of some reserve forests of Punjab, Pakistan.Her interest is basically to enlist all possible macrofungi of reserve forests under study and describe new species as well from area as our part of world still has many species to be discovered and named. She will be discussing factors which are affecting the fungal biodiversity in these reserve forests.
Sydney Gram is an Ecology & Evolutionary Biology student researcher (UofT/ROM)
Rotem Petranker- Bsc in psychology from the University of Toronto and a MA in social psychology from York University. Rotem is currently a PhD student in York’s clinical psychology program. His main research interest is affect regulation, and the way it interacts with sustained attention, mind wandering, and creativity. Rotem is a founding member oft the Psychedelic Studies Research Program at the University of Toronto, has published work on microdosing, and presented original research findings on psychedelic research in several conferences. He feels strongly that the principles of Open Science are necessary in order to do good research, and is currently in the process of starting the first lab study of microdosing in Canada.
Marshall Tyler– Director of Research, Field Trip. Marshall is a scientist with a deep interest in psychoactive molecules. His passion lies in guiding research to arrive at a deeper understanding of consciousness with the ultimate goal of enhancing wellbeing. At Field Trip, he is helping to develop a lab in Jamaica to explore the chemical and biological complexities of psychoactive fungi.
Tosca Teran, aka Nanotopia, is an Multi-disciplinary artist. Her work has been featured at SOFA New York, Culture Canada, and The Toronto Design Exchange. Tosca has been awarded artist residencies with The Ayatana Research Program in Ottawa and The Icelandic Visual Artists Association through Sím, Reykjavik Iceland and Nes artist residency in Skagaströnd, Iceland. In 2019 she was one of the first Bio-Artists in residence at the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto in partnership with the Ontario Science Centre as part of the Alien Agencies Collective. A recipient of the 2019 BigCi Environmental Award at Wollemi National Park within the UNESCO World Heritage site in the Greater Blue Mountains. Tosca started collaborating artistically with Algae, Physarum polycephalum, and Mycelium in 2016, translating biodata from non-human organisms into music.@MothAntler @nanopodstudio www.toscateran.com www.nanotopia.net8
Researcher Bor-Kai Hsiung’s work has graced this blog before but the topic was tarantulas and their structural colour. This time, it’s all about Australian peacock spiders and their structural colour according to a December 22, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,
Even if you are arachnophobic, you probably have seen pictures or videos of Australian peacock spiders (Maratus spp.). These tiny spiders are only 1-5 mm long but are famous for their flamboyant courtship displays featuring diverse and intricate body colorations, patterns, and movements.
The spiders extremely large anterior median eyes have excellent color vision and combine with their bright colors to make peacock spiders cute enough to cure most people of their arachnophobia. But these displays aren’t just pretty to look at, they also inspire new ways for humans to produce color in technology.
One species of peacock spider — the rainbow peacock spider (Maratus robinsoni) is particularly neat, because it showcases an intense rainbow iridescent signal in males’ courtship displays to the females. This is the first known instance in nature of males using an entire rainbow of colors to entice females. Dr. Bor-Kai Hsiung led an international team of researchers from the US (UAkron, Cal Tech, UC San Diego, UNL [University of Nebraska-Lincoln]), Belgium (Ghent University), Netherlands (UGroningen), and Australia to discover how rainbow peacock spiders produce this unique multi-color iridescent signal.
Using a diverse array of research techniques, including light and electron microscopy, hyperspectral imaging, imaging scatterometry, nano 3D printing and optical modeling, the team found the origin of this intense rainbow iridescence emerged from specialized abdominal scales of the spiders. These scales have an airfoil-like microscopic 3D contour with nanoscale diffraction grating structures on the surface.
The interaction between the surface nano-diffraction grating and the microscopic curvature of the scales enables separation and isolation of light into its component wavelengths at finer angles and smaller distances than are possible with current manmade engineering technologies.
Inspiration from these super iridescent scales can be used to overcome current limitations in spectral manipulation, and to further reduce the size of optical spectrometers for applications where fine-scale spectral resolution is required in a very small package, notably instruments on space missions, or wearable chemical detection systems. And it could have a wide array of implications to fields ranging from life sciences and biotechnologies to material sciences and engineering.
Here’s a video of an Australian rainbow peacock spider,
Here’s more from the YouTube description published on April 13, 2017 by Peacockspiderman,
Scenes of Maratus robinsoni, a spider Peter Robinson discovered and David Hill and I named it after him in 2012. You can read our description on pages 36-41 in Peckhamia 103.2, which can be downloaded from the Peckhamia website http://peckhamia.com/peckhamia_number…. This is one of the two smallest species of peacock spider (2.5 mm long) and the only spider we know of in which colour changes occur every time it moves, this video was created to document this. Music: ‘Be Still’ by Johannes Bornlöf licensed through my MCN ‘Brave Bison’ from ‘Epidemic Sound’ For licensing inquiries please contact Brave Bison firstname.lastname@example.org
The University of California at San Diego also published a December 22, 2017 news release about this work, which covers some of the same ground while providing a few new tidbits of information,
Brightly colored Australian peacock spiders (Maratus spp.) captivate even the most arachnophobic viewers with their flamboyant courtship displays featuring diverse and intricate body colorations, patterns, and movements – all packed into miniature bodies measuring less than five millimeters in size for many species. However, these displays are not just pretty to look at. They also inspire new ways for humans to produce color in technology.
One species of peacock spider – the rainbow peacock spider (Maratus robinsoni) – is particularly impressive, because it showcases an intense rainbow iridescent signal in males’ courtship displays to females. This is the first known instance in nature of males using an entire rainbow of colors to entice females to mate. But how do males make their rainbows? A new study published in Nature Communications looked to answer that question.
Figuring out the answers was inherently interdisciplinary so Bor-Kai Hsiung, a postdoctoral scholar at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, assembled an international team that included biologists, physicists and engineers. Starting while he was a Ph.D. student at The University of Akron under the mentorship of Todd Blackledge and Matthew Shawkey, the team included researchers from UA, Scripps Oceanography, California Institute of Technology, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the University of Ghent in Belgium, University of Groningen in Netherlands, and Australia to discover how rainbow peacock spiders produce this unique iridescent signal.
The team investigated the spider’s photonic structures using techniques that included light and electron microscopy, hyperspectral imaging, imaging scatterometry and optical modeling to generate hypotheses about how the spider’s scale generate such intense rainbows. The team then used cutting-edge nano 3D printing to fabricate different prototypes to test and validate their hypotheses. In the end, they found that the intense rainbow iridescence emerged from specialized abdominal scales on the spiders. These scales combine an airfoil-like microscopic 3D contour with nanoscale diffraction grating structures on the surface. It is the interaction between the surface nano-diffraction grating and the microscopic curvature of the scales that enables separation and isolation of light into its component wavelengths at finer angles and smaller distances than are possible with current engineering technologies.
“Who knew that such a small critter would create such an intense iridescence using extremely sophisticated mechanisms that will inspire optical engineers,” said Dimitri Deheyn, Hsuing’s advisor at Scripps Oceanography and a coauthor of the study.
For Hsiung, the finding wasn’t quite so unexpected.
“One of the main questions that I wanted to address in my Ph.D. dissertation was ‘how does nature modulate iridescence?’ From a biomimicry perspective, to fully understand and address a question, one has to take extremes from both ends into consideration. I purposefully chose to study these tiny spiders with intense iridescence after having investigated the non-iridescent blue tarantulas,” said Hsiung.
The mechanism behind these tiny rainbows may inspire new color technology, but would not have been discovered without research combining basic natural history with physics and engineering, the researchers said.
“Nanoscale 3D printing allowed us to experimentally validate our models, which was really exciting,” said Shawkey. “We hope that these techniques will become common in the future.”
“As an engineer, what I found fascinating about these spider structural colors is how these long evolved complex structures can still outperform human engineering,” said Radwanul Hasan Siddique, a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech and study coauthor. “Even with high-end fabrication techniques, we could not replicate the exact structures. I wonder how the spiders assemble these fancy structural patterns in the first place!”
Inspiration from these super iridescent spider scales can be used to overcome current limitations in spectral manipulation, and to reduce the size of optical spectrometers for applications where fine-scale spectral resolution is required in a very small package, notably instruments on space missions, or wearable chemical detection systems.
In the end, peacock spiders don’t just produce nature’s smallest rainbows.They could also have implications for a wide array of fields ranging from life sciences and biotechnologies to material sciences and engineering.
Before citing the paper and providing a link, here’s a story by Robert F. Service for Science magazine about attempts to capitalize on ‘spider technology’, in this case spider silk,
The hype over spider silk has been building since 1710. That was the year François Xavier Bon de Saint Hilaire, president of the Royal Society of Sciences in Montpellier, France, wrote to his colleagues, “You will be surpriz’d to hear, that Spiders make a Silk, as beautiful, strong and glossy, as common Silk.” Modern pitches boast that spider silk is five times stronger than steel yet more flexible than rubber. If it could be made into ropes, a macroscale web would be able to snare a jetliner.
The key word is “if.” Researchers first cloned a spider silk gene in 1990, in hopes of incorporating it into other organisms to produce the silk. (Spiders can’t be farmed like silkworms because they are territorial and cannibalistic.) Today, Escherichia coli bacteria, yeasts, plants, silkworms, and even goats have been genetically engineered to churn out spider silk proteins, though the proteins are often shorter and simpler than the spiders’ own. Companies have managed to spin those proteins into enough high-strength thread to produce a few prototype garments, including a running shoe by Adidas and a lightweight parka by The North Face. But so far, companies have struggled to mass produce these supersilks.
Some executives say that may finally be about to change. One Emeryville, California-based startup, Bolt Threads, says it has perfected growing spider silk proteins in yeast and is poised to turn out tons of spider silk thread per year. In Lansing, Michigan, Kraig Biocraft Laboratories says it needs only to finalize negotiations with silkworm farms in Vietnam to produce mass quantities of a combination spider/silkworm silk, which the U.S. Army is now testing for ballistics protection. …
I encourage you to read Service’s article in its entirety if the commercialization prospects for spider silk interest you as it includes gems such as this,
Spider silk proteins are already making their retail debut—but in cosmetics and medical devices, not high-strength fibers. AMSilk grows spider silk proteins in E. coli and dries the purified protein into powders or mixes it into gels, for use as additives for personal care products, such as moisture-retaining skin lotions. The silk proteins supposedly help the lotions form a very smooth, but breathable, layer over the skin. Römer says the company now sells tons of its purified silk protein ingredients every year.
Finally, here’s a citation for and a link to the paper about Australian peacock spiders and nanophotonics,
Rainbow peacock spiders inspire miniature super-iridescent optics by Bor-Kai Hsiung, Radwanul Hasan Siddique, Doekele G. Stavenga, Jürgen C. Otto, Michael C. Allen, Ying Liu, Yong-Feng Lu, Dimitri D. Deheyn, Matthew D. Shawkey, & Todd A. Blackledge. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 2278 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41467-017-02451-x Published online: 22 December 2017
They are not talking about smashing plants together at high speeds when they suggest creating a CERN LHC (European Particle Physics Laboratory Large Hadron Collider) for agricultural sciences. Rather, three scientists have published a discussion paper about enabling large scale collaborations amongst agricultural scientists in Europe, according to a Jan. 5, 2016 news item on phys.org,
The Large Hadron Collider, a.k.a. CERN, found success in a simple idea: Invest in a laboratory that no one institution could sustain on their own and then make it accessible for physicists around the world. Astronomers have done the same with telescopes, while neuroscientists are collaborating to build brain imaging observatories. Now, in Trends in Plant Science on January 5 , agricultural researchers present their vision for how a similar idea could work for them.
Rather than a single laboratory, the authors want to open a network of research stations across Europe—from a field in Scotland to an outpost in Sicily. Not only would this provide investigators with easy access to a range of different soil properties, temperatures, and atmospheric conditions to study plant/crop growth, it would allow more expensive equipment (for example, open-field installations to create artificial levels of carbon dioxide) to be a shared resource.
“Present field research facilities are aimed at making regional agriculture prosperous,” says co-author Hartmut Stützel of Leibniz Universität Hannover in Germany. “To us, it is obvious that the ‘challenges’ of the 21st century–productivity increase, climate change, and environmental sustainability–will require more advanced research infrastructures covering a wider range of environments.”
Stützel and colleagues, including Nicolas Brüggemann of Forschungszentrum Jülich in Germany and Dirk Inzé of VIB and Ghent University in Belgium, are just at the beginning of the process of creating their network, dubbed ECOFE (European Consortium for Open Field Experimentation). The idea was born last February at a meeting of Science Europe and goes back to discussions within a German Research Foundation working group starting four years ago. Now, they are approaching European ministries to explore the possibilities for ECOFE’s creation.
In addition to finding financial and political investment, ECOFE’s success will hinge on whether scientists at the various institutional research stations will be able to sacrifice a bit of their autonomy to focus on targeted research projects, Stützel says. He likens the network to a car sharing service, in which researchers will be giving up the autonomy and control of their own laboratories to have access to facilities in different cities. If ECOFE catches on, thousands of scientists could be using the network to work together on a range of “big picture” agricultural problems.
“It will be a rather new paradigm for many traditional scientists, but I think the communities are ready to accept this challenge and understand that research in the 21st century requires these types of infrastructures,” Stützel say. “We must now try to make political decision makers aware that a speedy implementation of a network for open field experimentation is fundamental for future agricultural research.”
This work from a Belgian-Dutch initiative has the potential to turn us into billboards. From a Sept. 2, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,
Researchers from Holst Centre (set up by TNO and imec), imec and CMST, imec’s associated lab at Ghent University [Belgium], have demonstrated the world’s first stretchable and conformable thin-film transistor (TFT) driven LED display laminated into textiles. This paves the way to wearable displays in clothing providing users with feedback.
“Wearable devices allow people to monitor their fitness and health so they can live full and active lives for longer. But to maximize the benefits wearables can offer, they need to be able to provide feedback on what users are doing as well as measuring it. By combining imec’s patented stretch technology with our expertise in active-matrix backplanes and integrating electronics into fabrics, we’ve taken a giant step towards that possibility,” says Edsger Smits, Senior research scientist at Holst Centre.
The conformable display is very thin and mechanically stretchable. A fine-grain version of the proven meander interconnect technology was developed by the CMST lab at Ghent University and Holst Centre to link standard (rigid) LEDs into a flexible and stretchable display. The LED displays are fabricated on a polyimide substrate and encapsulated in rubber, allowing the displays to be laminated in to textiles that can be washed. Importantly, the technology uses fabrication steps that are known to the manufacturing industry, enabling rapid industrialization.
Following an initial demonstration at the Society for Information Display’s Display Week in San Jose, USA earlier this year, Holst Centre has presented the next generation of the display at the International Meeting on Information Display (IMID) in Daegu, Korea, 18-21 August 2015. Smaller LEDs are now mounted on an amorphous indium-gallium-zinc oxide (a-IGZO) TFT backplane that employs a two-transistor and one capacitor (2T-1C) pixel engine to drive the LEDs. These second-generation displays offer higher pitch and increased, average brightness. The presentation will feature a 32×32 pixel demonstrator with a resolution of 13 pixels per inch (ppi) and average brightness above 200 candelas per square meter (cd/m2). Work is ongoing to further industrialize this technology.
There are some references for the work offered at the end of the press release but I believe they are citing their conference presentations,
9.4: Stretchable 45 × 80 RGB LED Display Using Meander Wiring Technology, Ohmae et al. SID 2015, June 2015
1.2: Rollable, Foldable and Stretchable Displays, Gelinck et al. IMID, Aug. 2015.
13.4 A conformable Active Matrix LED Display, Tripathi et al. IMID, Aug. 2015