Mark Marathon via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Mark Marathon via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Aboriginal Australians Team Up With Scientists to Develop Nanomaterials from Local Plant

Mark Marathon via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Mark Marathon via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

As earth’s plants and animals die out in what has been called the sixth mass extinction, many people are raising concerns about what those species take with them. What if the pollen of an extinct flower held the cure to cancer? We’ll never know. But scientists are hard at work to get to know the species that remain. Now, scientists at the University of Queensland (UQ) in Australia have teamed up with local Aboriginal people to develop high-tech materials using a native plant.

The Indjalandji-Dhidhanu people have lived in the Camooweal area for tens of thousands of years. They uphold their traditional laws and customs to this day, and have become custodians of Camooweal Caves National Park, managing the land and ensuring the protection of the plants, animals, and stones within. Many of these species have valuable and useful properties. The Indjalandji-Dhidhanu use a rock called chert to make spearheads and arrows. The wood of snappy gum trees (Eucalyptus racemosa) makes good didgeridoos and boomerangs. And the sticky, stretchy resin of the spinifex grass Triodia pungens is used both as medicine and as a super-strong glue to attach spearheads to shafts.

Tiny fibers called microfibrils give the grass its stretch and strength, but with the right technology and knowhow, they can also be mixed into other things. UQ scientists developed a way to extract the fibers from the grass and blend them with latex. The result is a material so sturdy and elastic that it can be used to make condoms as thin as a human hair.

UQ's Nasim Amiralian stretches latex with a spinifex nanocellulose additive. Image credit: Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, University of Queensland

"The great thing about our nanocellulose [treated fiber] is that it's a flexible nano-additive, so we can make a stronger and thinner membrane that is supple and flexible, which is the Holy Grail for natural rubber," UQ engineer Darren Martin said in a press statement.

That thinness is going to make spinifex latex very popular, Martin continued. "Rather than looking at increasing the strength, companies would be looking to market the thinnest, most satisfying prophylactic possible," he said. "Likewise, it would also be possible to produce latex gloves that are just as strong, but thinner, giving a more sensitive feel and less hand fatigue to users such as surgeons. Because you would also use less latex, your material cost in production would potentially drop as well, making it even more attractive to manufacturers.”

In an unprecedented partnership, UQ signed an agreement with Dugalunji Aboriginal Corporation that will recognize the intellectual property contributions of the Indjalandji-Dhidhanu people and ensure both their agency in any major decisions and their share of future profits made on the new materials.

Colin Saltmere, managing director of the Dugalunji Aboriginal Corporation, which represents Dugalunji interests, is really happy with the arrangement. "There are strong hopes of cultivating and processing spinifex grass on a commercial scale, bringing economic opportunities to the remote areas across Australia where it thrives," he said in the press release.

The researchers intend to publish their condom results later this year.

Matthias Heyde/Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Norway's Doomsday Seed Vault Is Getting a $12.7 Million Makeover After Flood
Matthias Heyde/Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Matthias Heyde/Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Ten years ago, Norway build the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a secure storage facility deep within an Arctic mountain designed to keep seeds from the world’s essential crops safe from any kind of disaster. Though it’s not the only seed bank, it is the world’s largest, with nearly 900,000 seed samples in long-term storage. And now, according to The Verge, the facility is due for a makeover worth more than $12.7 million.

Owned by Norway’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food and run by the Nordic Genetic Resources Center, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is situated north of the Arctic Circle on an archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole. It acts as a backup library of seeds for the world’s major crops, providing a way to revive food sources if a country’s food supply is destroyed by natural disasters, warfare, or pests. The first of its seed deposits were withdrawn in 2015 to replace seeds samples from another gene bank destroyed in the Syrian civil war.

Tubes of seeds sit next to foil packets.

Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The seeds currently stored there are kept in vaults located almost 400 feet underground, ensuring that they will stay cold even if the mechanical cooling systems fail or as temperatures rise outside due to climate change. But now, 10 years after the mountain storage facility opened, it’s due for some upgrades to keep it running smoothly. On February 23, the Norwegian government announced a proposal to upgrade the infrastructure of the vault, including constructing a new access tunnel and a service building that will contain emergency power and refrigeration sources.

To keep seeds safe for future generations in perpetuity, the vault will have to be able to withstand the effects of climate change, which will include the melting of the permafrost that keeps the facility cool. In 2017, melting permafrost seeped into the vault, and while none of its samples was damaged, the failure does suggest that we can’t rely on permafrost to keep the vault’s treasure at a safe temperature if the mechanical cooling systems change. The new access tunnel will be more water-resistant, and the service building will keep sources of heat away from the vault itself. The work is scheduled to be done by May 2019.

Despite the melting permafrost, Svalbard is still considered one of the safest places in the world for really, really long-term storage. In March 2017, the seed vault got a new neighbor, the history- and culture-focused Arctic World Archive.

[h/t The Verge]

15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers

People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.


There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)


It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.


Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.


American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.


The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.


This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.


The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.


These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.


A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.


The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.


This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.


Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.


Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.


You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.


Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.


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