A scientist looks through a microscope.
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Now you have an excuse for getting out of peeling tomato skins – a new method of plant analysis, developed at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, has identified healthful antioxidants in tomato skins. In fact, as reported recently in Nature Communications, the new method reveals that biologically active plant substances typically associated with particular plant species – including those providing health benefits – are much more prevalent across the plant kingdom than was previously thought.
Plants produce, in total, an estimated million- plus organic chemicals, and each plant is believed to contain an average of 15,000 of them. To address the challenge of identifying the majority of such “specialized metabolites” in any given plant, Dr. Nir Shahaf and colleagues, including Prof. Asaph Aharoni of the plant and environmental sciences department, created a database of plant metabolites, which they called WeizMass. Shahaf then developed a computer tool, MatchWeiz, which makes it possible to identify the metabolites by checking experimental results from the metabolic analysis of a particular plant against the database.
Using these new tools, the scientists identified more than 20 metabolites that had never before been reported in tomatoes, including certain antioxidants in the skin.
When the researchers then compared the analysis of tomatoes with that of duckweed and the research model Arabidopsis thaliana, they discovered an overlap in specialized metabolite content among these strikingly different species.
These and other results suggest that plant species are not as specialized in their metabolism as has been commonly assumed. Thus, valuable substances produced by exotic plants may potentially be derived from more common species.
The Weizmann team found, for instance, that both duckweed and Arabidopsis thaliana contain – albeit in smaller amounts – certain metabolites used in traditional medicine that until now have been isolated only from such oriental medicinal plants as maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba), ginger (Zingiber officinale) and rock pine (Orostachys japonicus).
“WeizMass and MatchWeiz can serve as extremely powerful tools for studying plant metabolism and identifying metabolites with useful biological activity, including potential drugs,” said Aharoni. WeizMass and MatchWeiz are not limited to the study of plant metabolites, but may also be used to investigate the biology of other living systems, including animal and human metabolism.
DEER ANTLERS INSPIRE UNBREAKABLE MATERIALS The secret behind the toughness of deer antlers and how they can resist breaking during fights has been discovered by scientists from Queen Mary University of London.
The team looked at the antler structure at the nano-level – which is incredibly small, almost one thousandth of the thickness of a hair strand – and were able to identify the mechanisms at work, using state-of-the-art computer modeling and x-ray techniques.
Dr. Paolino De Falco explained: “The fibrils that make up the antler are staggered rather than in line with each other. This allows them to absorb the energy from the impact of a clash during a fight.”
The research, published recently in the journal ACS Biomaterials Science and Engineering, provides new insights and fills a previous gap in the area of structural modeling of bone. It also opens up possibilities for the creation of a new generation of materials that can resist damage.
Co-author Dr. Ettore Barbieri added, “Our next step is to create a 3-D printed model with fibers arranged in staggered configuration and linked by an elastic interface. The aim is to prove that additive manufacturing – where a prototype can be created a layer at a time – can be used to create damage-resistant composite material.”
HUMAN VISUAL SYSTEM TO DETECT SNAKES Some studies have suggested that the visual systems of humans and other primates are finely tuned to identify dangerous creatures such as snakes and spiders. This is understandable because, among our ancestors, those that were more able to see and avoid these animals would have been more likely to pass on their genes to the next generation.
But it has been hard to compare the recognition of different animals in an unbiased way because of their different shapes, anatomical features, and levels of camouflage.
In a study reported recently in PLOS One, researchers at Japan’s Nagoya University obtained strong support for the idea that humans have heightened visual awareness of snakes. The researchers applied an image manipulation tool and revealed that subjects could identify snakes in much more blurry images than they could identify other harmless animals in equivalent images.
The tool, called Random Image Structure Evolution (RISE), was used to create a series of 20 images of snakes, birds, cats, and fish, ranging from completely blurred to completely clear. The pair then asked subjects to views these images in order of increasing clarity until they could identify the animal in the picture.
“Because of the algorithm that it uses, RISE produces images that allow unbiased comparison between the recognition of different animals,” first author Nobuyuki Kawai said.
“In the images, the animals are ‘camouflaged’ in a uniform way, representing typical conditions in which animals are encountered in the wild.”
The findings confirm the snake detection theory; namely, that the visual system of humans and primates has specifically evolved in a way that facilitates picking out of dangerous animals. The study augments understanding of the evolutionary pressures placed on our ancestors.