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The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

Plastic surgery for plants?


Plastic surgery for plants?

The university has received a three-year, $354,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to improve soil reinforcement by injecting living plant roots with plastic polymers to develop synthetic root systems. The synthetic root systems have widespread applications in dams, levees, embankments, landfills and other soil-based structures.

"The root structures of plants and trees are often used to reinforce soil. But when those plants and trees die or they are damaged by animals or bad weather, we get holes in the soil where the roots should be. The result is a weakened soil system, prone to erosion," said Drew Johnson, assistant professor of civil engineering and the study’s principal investigator.

To develop a solution for soil erosion, UTSA researchers will create liquid polymers and test them by injecting them into the roots of plants. Once injected, those polymers will solidify in the shape of the plant’s roots, and as the live roots decompose over time, the plastic root structure will remain, keeping the soil in place and protecting it from erosion.

Johnson will conduct the research in collaboration with Mark Appleford, assistant professor of biomedical engineering; Paul Jurena, assistant professor of geological sciences; Valerie Sponsel, associate professor of plant physiology; and Sazzad Bin-Shafique, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. Six student researchers will also participate.

In response to the proposal, one NSF reviewer noted, "This research is … in its infancy, high risk, highly innovative, but with tremendous future potential."

-Christi Fish

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