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Studying root systems using LEGO pieces is a snap

AMES, Iowa – LEGO pieces are classic building blocks, but now they’re stepping stones toward a better understanding of plant root systems.

“We’re interested in understanding the effect of the environment on the development of plants,” says Dr. Ludovico Cademartiri with Iowa State University’s Materials Science and Engineering Department. But for as simple a goal as that may sound, Cademartiri found it incredibly difficult.

For one thing, just being able to look at roots as they grow, is not easy. Root systems also branch out, which means an optimal platform for experiments would also be scalable. And any kind of systematic study of root system responses to different environmental factors would require repeated trials.

“That means that, not only do you have to create environments that are large, in order to contain the plant, but you need to make a lot of them,” explains Cademartiri. “So you can see that, if for each experiment you have to build something that contains a plant, the cost becomes immediately impractical. And so the consequence is that, if the costs are impractical, the experiement doesn’t get done. And so, you don’t get the information, and so progress sort of slows down, a little bit.

However, growing plants in transparent gel inside of a box made of LEGO pieces is by no means impractical. Compared to other lab equipment, LEGOs aren’t particularly expensive, they’re modular, see-through, don’t interfere chemically with the subject plants, and can survive sterilization multiple times without deforming. And above all, they’re simple.

“We like tools that are simple,” says Cademartiri. “Otherwise, we don’t use them; if people don’t use them, the impact of our work becomes rather limited.”

It’s not quite as easy as snapping LEGOS together – for one thing, the pieces aren’t watertight on their own. But Cademartiri says one goal of his research program is allowing engineers to make their own contributions to crop science, an area of study that will be stretched to its limit to accomodate the needs of 9 billion people by 2050.

“Agriculture is expected to be under tremendous stress in the next few decades,” Cademartiri says, “and we need as many minds and people working on the problem as we can.”

You can learn more about Dr. Cademartiri’s research by clicking here.