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

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

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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.

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5 Trouble-Shooting Tips to Keep Your House Plant Alive
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iStock

Maybe you’ve heard that houseplants can help improve indoor air quality. Perhaps you’ve read that looking at plants can help you focus. Or maybe you just really like how that ficus looks in your living room. But buying a plant and keeping it alive are two different things, and the answer to your botanical woes isn’t always “don't forget to water it.”

Here are five green-thumb tips to make sure your plant stays as leafy green as it was the day you bought it.

1. DON’T OVER-WATER.

You don’t want to neglect your plant, but it’s easy to go overboard with the watering can, and that can be just as harmful as forgetting to water your plant for weeks. A watering schedule can help you keep track of whether or not your plants need attention, but you shouldn’t water just because it’s Sunday and that’s when you usually do it. Before you go to water your plant baby, make sure it actually needs it.

Your plant’s water needs will vary based on the type of plant, its location, how old it is, and plenty of other factors, but there are a few rules of thumb that can put you on the right track. Lift the pot. If it’s heavy, that means that the soil is full of water. If it’s light, it’s dry. Dig a finger into the soil around its roots, making sure to feel beneath the surface. Still damp? Hold off. Dry? Grab the H2O.

If you really struggle to strike the right balance between too much and too little water, consider a smart plant system. And regardless of how often you water, make sure to use a pot with good drainage to prevent root rot.

2. WATCH THE TEMPERATURE.

Be aware of where your plant is situated in the room, and whether there might be any temperature extremes there. Is your fern sitting right above the radiator? Is your peony subject to a cold draft? Is your rosemary plant stuck leaning against a window during a snowstorm?

As a rule, most houseplants can handle temperatures between 58°F and 86°F, according to a bulletin from the University of Georgia. The ideal range is between 70°F and 80°F during the day, and between 65°F and 70°F at night. Below 50°F, sensitive plants can suffer damage to their leaves. However, as with most plant advice, it depends on the species—tropical plants usually do well in higher temperatures, and some other plants are happier in colder rooms.

If your sad-looking plant is sitting in the middle of a cold draft or right next to the heater, consider moving it to a different spot, or at least a few inches away. If it’s near the window, you can also draft-proof the window.

3. MAINTAIN HUMIDITY.

Be mindful of the kind of ecosystem that your plant comes from, and know that keeping it happy means more than just finding the right amount of sun. A tropical plant like an orchid won’t thrive in dry desert air. According to the Biology Department at Kenyon College in Ohio, a dried-out plant will look faded and wilting. You can immerse it in water to help it bounce back quickly. (Warning, though: A plant that’s getting too much moisture can look that way, too.)

If your home gets dry—say, when you have the heater on full blast in the winter or the AC on constantly during the summer—you’ll need to find a way to keep your plant refreshed. Your can buy a humidifier, or create a humidity tray by placing the pot on a tray of pebbles soaked in water. The plant will soak up the humidity as the water under the pebbles evaporates. You can also get a spray bottle and mist your tropical plants periodically with water. (But don't mist your fuzzy-leafed plants.)

Not sure how humid your house is? You can get a humidity gauge (known as a hydrometer) for less than $10 on Amazon.

4. LOOK OUT FOR BUGS.

Even if you do all of the above correctly, you can still struggle to keep a plant healthy due to infestations. Keep an eye out for common pests like spider mites, which will leave brown or yellow spots on leaves or make the plant’s color dull. If you discover these tiny mites (you may need to use a magnifying glass), wash your plant immediately with water to knock off as many mites as possible. Wash the plant with an insecticidal soap, too, but make sure the label says it’s effective for mites.

5. DON’T DISCOUNT THE POT.

Healthy plants often outgrow their homes. if you notice that there are roots coming out the drainage holes at the bottom of your pot, or that water sits on the surface of the soil for a long time before draining down, or that your plant’s roots are coming up out of the soil, it’s time to upgrade to a bigger pot. Signs of a “root bound” plant whose root system is too big for its container can also include wilting, yellowed leaves, and stunted plant growth.

No matter what the size of your plant, it’s good to repot it once in a while, since the nutrients in the soil deplete over time. Repotting creates a fresh nutritional start and can help perk up unhappy plants.

If your plant looks unhealthy and you're still stumped, try consulting the website of a university horticulture department for other signs of plant distress and potential solutions.

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Rosimar Rivera Colón
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Scientists Find Two New Species of Deadly 'Bird-Catcher' Trees
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Rosimar Rivera Colón

From car windshields to cats, birds around the world face plenty of mortal threats. But as IFLScience reports, avians in Puerto Rico have particularly unique forest foes that until recently were unknown to science. Deep in the island's jungles, researchers have discovered two new species of "bird-catcher" trees, bearing ripe, sticky fruits that—yes—can quite literally trap and kill birds.

As recently described in the journal Phytokeys, the trees—which are members of the genus Pisonia—produce fruits with viscous skins covered in tiny hooks. If a bird perches on the tree, a piece of fruit can stick to its body; when the bird flies off, it takes the fruit with it, potentially dispersing it somewhere else on the island. But if the fruits become too tightly affixed to birds, they can trap and kill their tiny transporters. Their tiny bones sometimes litter the trees' swollen roots, which wrap over rocks and are said to look like elephant feet. 

The trees' discovery has resulted in the long-due recognition of two overlooked female figures in Puerto Rico. The trees were given the names Pisonia horneae and Pisonia roqueae to celebrate the scientific contributions of Frances W. Horne (1873–1967), an American illustrator whose vibrant watercolors depicted hundreds of Puerto Rican plants; and Ana Roqué de Duprey (1853–1933), a Puerto Rican academic, writer, suffragist, and amateur ethnobotanist.

"It only seemed natural to name the two new species after these two extraordinary women who spent decades on large educational projects aimed to divulge botanical knowledge in Puerto Rico," study co-author Jorge C. Trejo-Torres said in a statement. "Just like the two large trees remained unrecognized by science until now, the enormous efforts of these two women, who dedicated part of their lives to botanical work, remained largely unrecognized by the community."

The infructescences of Pisonia roqueae

Jorge C. Trejo-Torres

The 'elephant foot' trunk of Pisonia roqueae

The 'elephant foot' trunk of Pisonia roqueae.

Jorge C. Trejo-Torres

[h/t IFLScience]

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