Plants use latex to harm and heal
• Study shows how plants benefit from the use of natural latex
• Researchers hope the study will help us understand how materials are used in nature
• The project could show where to look for natural latex suitable for industrial applications
Plants use natural latex in different ways, to help poison insects or rapidly heal wounds, a new study has found.
Scientists from the Universities of Sheffield, Oxford and Freiburg tested latex samples from two different types of plant. They found that Euphorbia plants use slow-drying latex to keep insects in contact with their noxious sap whereas Ficus plants, such as the weeping fig, use fast-drying latex to seal wounds more quickly.
Latex is a milky fluid found in around 10 per cent of flowering plants, and is the main constituent of natural rubber. The team developed a new way of testing the mechanical properties of latex, and their research is published this week in Journal of the Royal Society Interface. The work was led by Dr Chris Holland, from the University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering.
“When injured, the latex of Euphorbia plants takes a long time to harden,” said Dr Holland. “This gives the plant time to deliver a cocktail of poisonous compounds to stop biting insects. Ficus latex on the other hand hardens rapidly, sealing the wound to prevent infection and fluid loss.”
The team took latex samples from Euphorbia and Ficus plants grown in the Oxford University Botanic Garden and a commercial nursery in Freiburg. They chose species related to those used for industrial latex production, but which had developed naturally. This kept the work relevant to industry while ensuring that the plants' properties came about through natural, not artificial, selection.
Euphorbia is the fourth-largest genus of flowering plants, with around 5,000 species currently identified. Some species are cactus-like in appearance, and many of the plants thought to be cactuses in Africa actually belong to the Euphorbia genus. Weeping figs (Ficus benjamina) are common office plants, and in natural conditions the trees can grow up to 30m. Insights into the properties of their latex and its biological origins were made possible by collaboration between materials scientists and biologists.
“This study highlights the intellectual advances and fundamental understanding that can be achieved when two normally separate disciplines interact as closely as we did,” said Dr Georg Bauer from the University of Freiburg’s Plant Biomechanics Group.
The researchers hope that these studies, which cross the interface between physical and life sciences, will help us to better understand the ways materials are used in nature.
“This project is about being inspired by nature to discover and implement things that can help mankind to face the challenges that the future brings,” said Professor Fritz Vollrath from Oxford University's Department of Zoology. “The insights from this study could show us where to look for natural latex with certain properties for industrial applications. It could also enable us to design new synthetic polymers, inspired by nature.”
The University of Sheffield
With nearly 25,000 of the brightest students from 117 countries coming to learn alongside 1,209 of the world’s best academics, it is clear why the University of Sheffield is one of the UK’s leading universities. Staff and students at Sheffield are committed to helping discover and understand the causes of things - and propose solutions that have the power to transform the world we live in.
A member of the Russell Group, the University of Sheffield has a reputation for world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines. The University of Sheffield has been named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards 2011 for its exceptional performance in research, teaching, access and business performance. In addition, the University has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes (1998, 2000, 2002, 2007), recognising the outstanding contribution by universities and colleges to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.
One of the markers of a leading university is the quality of its alumni and Sheffield boasts five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students. Its alumni have gone on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.
Research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, Boots, AstraZeneca, GSK, Siemens, Yorkshire Water and many more household names, as well as UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.
The University has well-established partnerships with a number of universities and major corporations, both in the UK and abroad. The White Rose University Consortium (White Rose) a strategic partnership between 3 of the UK's leading research universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York. Since its creation in 1997 White Rose has secured more than £100M into the Universities.
For further information please contact
Media Relations Officer
0114 222 9851