A team of scientists at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore has found an effective way to transform pollen, one of the toughest materials in the animal world, into a soft and flexible material. This new material can be seen as a “building block” in the design of new categories of ecological materials.
Scientists at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore have created a new type of soft, flexible particle using pollen as a starting point. According to the scientific article, published on March 19 at Nature Communications, this new particle can be used as the basis for a new generation of green and biocompatible materials.
The pollen grains of sunflowers, natural and incredibly hard, were transformed into substances similar to microgels, through a process very similar to the production of soap.
Pollen, described by scientists as the “diamond of the world of plants” due to its indestructible characteristics, carries the male genetic material of a plant within a structure composed of two distinct layers – a resistant outer layer (exine) and a soft cellulose and elastic, the inner layer (intine).
When they are released by the flower, the pollen grains become dehydrated. However, when these grains reach the female reproductive structure of the plant, they hydrate and germinate: a pollen tube grows outside the grain towards the female part of the plant.
This pollen tube growth process is controlled by enzymes that alter the elasticity of the wall and cause structural changes. It was these processes that inspired the team to try to remodel the entire structure of the pollen wall and to change the properties of the material.
The pollen grains of the sunflower plant were incubated in alkaline conditions for 12 hours. This process softened the two parts of the wall and the grain particles swelled, adopting the appearance of gel.
In computer simulations, the team found that the elastic properties of the inner and outer layers of the wall needed to be within a precise range for the pollen-derived material to exhibit this gel-like aspect, reports the EurekAlert.
This indicates that, for an individual pollen particle, there is a chemical and physical pathway that determines whether hydration leads to successful germination. This study inspires future research to understand how the science of pollen materials can influence the reproductive success of plants.
With the help of 3D and 4D printing technologies, these new microgel particles can serve as building blocks for polymer gels, sponges and other materials with unique properties.
Furthermore, as this work suggests that there is no immunological, allergic or toxic reaction when used in human tissues, scientists believe that this microgel can be very useful in the creation of dressings, prostheses and even electronic devices designed to be incorporated into the body.