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This week in news, we dive into microfliers inspired by seeds and parasites that turn plants into zombie plants!

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The first 100 people to click on the link will get 25% off a Fabulous subscription. [♪ INTRO]. So you know how in sci-fi movies there’s sometimes like hundreds of little surveillance drones flying around a futuristic city?

Well, a less dystopian version of flying monitoring devices may not be that far off. Scientists have proposed using networks of tiny sensors to monitor environmental quality, keep an eye on populations of endangered species, and detect forest fires. Scientists and engineers have developed tiny devices -.

I’m talking a millimeter in diameter - that can harvest energy to power themselves, collect data, and communicate that data back to a central hub. The thing is, efficiently distributing hundreds or thousands of those mini devices across super vast distances is tough. But we don’t have to start designing from scratch.

Some plants are a step ahead of us when it comes to dispersal methods, and they’ve given us some hints about what might work. Plants have spent millions of years perfecting ways to spread their seeds across long distances without actually going anywhere themselves. They rely on wind to help their seeds glide, helicopter, parachute, and flutter across hundreds of kilometers, before gently settling down and doing what they are programmed to do.

So we could skip a lot of design steps if we just borrowed what we already know works. And that’s exactly what the authors of a new paper in Nature did. They designed teeny tiny seed-inspired fliers that could carry teeny tiny payloads.

The researchers used a controlled crumpling technique to turn flat sheets of polymers into 3D shapes that mimicked the shape of seeds. This crumpling process allowed them to design fliers in different sizes, with different wing shapes and structural elements inspired by a range of different types of seeds. And then, they put them to the test to see if the human-engineered fliers moved in the same ways the natural ones did.

They looked at how aerodynamic the fliers were, how much the environment affected their flight, how straight they flew, how well they rotated, how slowly they fell, and how stable they were. All of these flight aspects are important because if you want to send electronics or wireless communication components somewhere, you want to make sure that they get where they’re going intact, and that requires a stable, controlled, drifting descent. Although that only matters if you can put functional payloads on these tiny fliers, so that was the next task on the researchers’ plate.

They designed fliers that could carry sensors to measure pH levels and larger fliers with circuits that measure fine dust pollution. The tiny fliers can also carry wireless communication technology, because measuring data is useless if you can’t actually get what you’ve collected. And as incredible as the natural seed dispersal mechanisms are, this is where science can actually improve on Mother Nature.

Now that the researchers have designed this proof of concept and shown that they can make artificial 3D structures that can move in the same way seeds do and carry functional sensors and semiconductors, they can try to do one better. They can actually combine the flying strategies of different kinds of seeds to create something that works even better than what we see in nature. The next step before sending out these fliers will be to figure out how to get them back after they’re done collecting data, or even make them biodegradable.

But engineers aren’t the only ones using plants for their benefit. Parasites do it too. Some parasites don’t just borrow nutrients or chow down on their hosts.

They actually interfere with the way genes are expressed and cause visible changes to their hosts. In the case of parasites called phytoplasmas, those changes include causing host plants to grow extra, closely packed shoots and branches, turning flowers back into leaf-like structures, and actually causing their hosts to live longer and stop reproducing. Basically, they turn plants into zombies.

I’m not kidding. Scientists actually call plants that no longer reproduce and only function as a host for a parasite zombie plants. And a new paper in Cell proposes that all the zombie changes phytoplasmas cause may actually be due to a single protein called SAP05.

SAP05 hijacks a receptor in the plant that is responsible for degrading specific proteins. It then reprograms the receptor to degrade specific proteins that trigger transitions between the plant’s developmental phases and proteins that regulate flowering and branching patterns. With those proteins degraded, the plants experience delayed aging, the excessive branching called a witches broom, and the development of sterile shoots.

Which seems kind of counterintuitive. It doesn’t really make sense that the phytoplasmas would want their hosts to reproduce less. Except the plants are actually just a means to an end.

Where phytoplasmas really want to end up is inside the insects that eat the infected plants, so that they can then be transmitted to more plants. And all of these processes just increase the chances the phytoplasma will survive until they get eaten by an insect. If a plant stops aging and lives longer, that’s more time that insects can munch on it, increasing the phytoplasma’s chances of getting swallowed.

If the plant isn’t spending its precious nutrients on flowering and producing seeds to reproduce, that’s more nutrients that the phytoplasma can steal. And since they lack their own metabolic pathways, they need to steal basically everything they need to survive from the host plant. So the more branches and leaves they have, the more nutrients are flowing, and the larger phytoplasma colony the plant can support.

But there’s one other weird, important part of this whole story. The insects that the phytoplasma end up infecting also have the same protein-degradation receptor that SAP05 hijacks to induce all those changes in plants. But the insects do not experience any visible changes.

It turns out that thanks to a tiny difference in the insect version of the receptor,. SAP05 doesn’t actually bind to it. So it doesn’t have any effect.

So the scientists - always trying to figure out what’s going on and what they can do with it - swapped out the genes for the insect version of the receptor and put it into the plant. And thus, they managed to create plants that were resistant to the effects of SAP05. Since phytoplasma infestations can devastate crops, killing them and reducing how much produce they yield, phytoplasma-resistant plants could be super useful for global food production and keeping small farmers from losing their entire harvest.

In other words, this genetic swap could give zombie plants the chance to live again. If you’re looking to make a change yourself, you probably shouldn’t put insect genes inside of you, but you might like today’s sponsor, Fabulous. It’s tough to make and change habits.

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And you can track your progress in the habit dashboard. And the first 100 people who click on the link below will get 25% off a Fabulous subscription! Thanks for watching, and thanks again to Fabulous for sponsoring this video. [♪ OUTRO].