The Loh Down On Science

Kinky Research

Cool as a cuke, or as twisted?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Some plants reach for the sun with branches. Others grow tendrils. These grab nearby objects, then coil, hoisting the plant up.

Recently, biologists at Harvard examined cucumber tendrils: They coil like a telephone cord, but switch coil direction midway. Darwin called this “helical perversion.” Kinky!  Literally.

Curious, the researchers dissected tendrils. They found a fibrous ribbon, two cells thick, running the tendrils' length.

When a tendril grabs something, one layer of ribbon cells contracts, forcing the whole tendril to curl. Since the tendril is attached at both ends, the helical perversion prevents the tendril from twisting at the ends and breaking. That’s because every righthand coil cancels out a lefthand coil on the other half.

Even odder, pull a tendril, and instead of straightening, like a phone cord, it coils more!

The team calls the effect "overwinding." It probably allows plants to withstand strain without breaking.

Copying the effect could be useful.

Like cucumber shock absorbers, in your electric car.  Talk about green.

The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, with 89.3 KPCC Pasadena, California. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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