Sunday, 1 January 2017

Strong, Smart and Small: Tiny Molecules Can Build Huge Structures

Plants can be amazingly strong.

Joel Kontinen

Some materials found in nature can be astonishingly strong. Just think of a spider’s web, for instance. A recent example is a smart “glue” that keeps a plant’s cell walls together.

Science Daily summarises the findings of a paper published in the journal Nature Communications:

Molecules 10,000 times narrower than the width of a human hair could hold the key to making possible wooden skyscrapers and more energy-efficient paper production, according to research… The study, led by a father and son team at the Universities of Warwick and Cambridge, solves a long-standing mystery of how key sugars in cells bind to form strong, indigestible materials.”

Cellulose and xylan are the most common large molecules or polymers that abound in the cell walls of plants.

Researchers knew that these molecules could somehow stick together to form strong cell walls, but until now they did not understand how they did it.

Professor Paul Dupree of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge, says:

Cellulose induces xylan to untwist itself and straighten out, allowing it to attach itself to the cellulose molecule. It then acts as a kind of 'glue' that can protect cellulose or bind the molecules together, making very strong structures.”

Which evolved first?

It seems that this is yet another of the chicken or egg dilemmas that Darwinian evolution can’t explain.

We have just begun to understand the mysteries of trees and the amazing properties of the creatures that use their produce for food.


University of Cambridge. 2016. Glue' that makes plant cell walls strong could hold the key to wooden skyscrapers." Science Daily. (21 December).