Mimosa plant ‘to inspire adaptive structures of the future’

Monday, February 21, 2011

WASHINGTON - Robots could soon change shape like elephant trunks or snakes to manoeuvre under a bridge or through a tunnel and airplanes could change the shape of their wings while in flight as birds do - thanks to a research underway on mimosa plants.

The plant, which folds its leaves when they are touched, is inspiring a new class of adaptive structures that can twist, bend, stiffen and even heal themselves, according to University of Michigan professor of mechanical engineering Kon-Well Wang.

Researchers at U-M and Penn State University are studying how plants like the Mimosa can change shape, and they are working to replicate the mechanisms in artificial cells.

They are also exploring how to replicate the mechanisms by which plants heal themselves.

The mimosa is a type of plant that exhibit specialized ‘nastic motions’, large movements visible to the naked eye in real time, said Erik Nielsen, assistant professor in the U-M Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology.

The phenomenon is made possible by osmosis, the flow of water in and out of plants’ cells. Triggers such as touch cause water to leave certain plant cells, collapsing them. Water enters other cells, expanding them. These microscopic shifts allow the plants to move and change shape on a larger scale, he said

It is the plant’s ‘hydraulic system’ that makes the ‘nastic motion’ possible, he added.

“We know that plants can deform with large actuation through this pumping action. This and several other characteristics of plant cells and cell walls have inspired us to initiate ideas that could concurrently realize many of the features that we want to achieve for adaptive structures,” Wang said at an annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science recently.

“We hope studying these motions can inform us about how to make efficient adaptive materials that display some of the same types of flexibility that we see in biological systems,” said Nielsen. (ANI)

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