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.

The iNaturalist App Is Like Shazam for Plants, Animals, and Insects

The planet is home to approximately 8.7 million species, with plenty more still waiting to be discovered. Whether you're a biology expert or a nature enthusiast, the iNaturalist app can expand your knowledge of the world's plants, animals, and insects by acting as a social media site for cataloging the natural world.

Here's how it works: If you spot an organism in the wild that you don't recognize, snap a photo of it and upload it to iNaturalist. There it will be identified through a combination of artificial intelligence that draws from the app's database and the crowdsourced efforts of citizen scientists. According to The Big Issue, the app is already home to roughly 10 million observations from users that can be broken down by species, time, and location.

While most animals catalogued on the site are fairly common, some observations have led to major breakthroughs. In 2013, a photo of a red and black frog uploaded from Colombia was identified by a poison frog expert as a new species. The following year, a scientist stumbled upon a photo of a rare Vietnamese snail on the app that had been described by 18th century explorer Captain Cook but never photographed.

The discovery of a new or rare species isn’t the only thing that makes the app worthwhile; the growing pool of observations gives biologists who use the app more data to refer to in their research. So while this may not be the case for all social media sites, oversharing on iNaturalist is never an issue.

[h/t The Big Issue]

Stop and Smell the Roses With Pop Chart Lab's Flowers of North America Poster

You can now fill your room with 200 kinds of flowers that you never need to water: Simply hang up Pop Chart Lab's bright and beautiful new poster breaking down the blooms of North America.

The print features familiar species like the sunflower alongside weirder fare like turtlehead, fireweed, and giant Rose Mallow. Each flower is accompanied by its common and scientific names and categorized as a perennial, annual, tree, shrub, or vine. There's also a color-coded map of the United States so you can look up where to spot each one.

The print goes for $29 on its own or $120 to $130 if you want it framed. Shipping begins on July 5. To see each bud in detail, head to the Pop Chart Lab website (and don't miss the puns, which, as always, are on point). They have tons more posters for nature lovers, from fruits and vegetables to butterflies.

Check out the design below:

Pop Chart Lab's American Bloom poster
Courtesy of Pop Chart Lab


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