Plant Biology is a Gateway

Too many college students have been subject to teachers’ aids who think they are too clever to be stuck teaching mere underclassmen. For that reason, [The Thought Emporium] is important because he approaches learning with gusto and is always ready to learn something new himself and teach anyone who wants to learn. When he released a video about staining and observing plant samples, he avoided the biggest pitfalls often seen in college or high school labs. Instead of calling out the steps by rote, he walks us through them with useful camera angles and close-ups. Rather than just pointing at a bottle and saying, “the blue one,” he tells us what is inside and why it is essential. Instead of telling us precisely what we need to see to get a passing grade, he lets our minds wonder about what we might see and shows us examples that make the experiment seem exciting. The video can also be seen below the break.

The process of staining can be found in a biology textbook, and some people learn best by reading, but we haven’t read a manual that makes a rudimentary lab seem like the wardrobe to Narnia, so he gets credit for that. Admittedly, you have to handle a wicked sharp razor, and the chance of failure is never zero. In fact, he will tell you, the opportunities to fail are everywhere. The road to science isn’t freshly paved, it needs pavers.

If a biology lab isn’t in your personal budget, a hackerspace may have one or need one. If you are wondering where you’ve heard [The Thought Emporium]’s voice before, it is because he is fighting lactose intolerance like a hacker.

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Decellularization: Apples to Earlobes

Our bodies are not like LEGO blocks or computers because we cannot swap out our parts in the living room while watching television. Organ transplants and cosmetic surgery are currently our options for upgrades, repairs, and augments, but post-transplant therapy can be a lifelong commitment because of rejection. Elective surgery costs more than a NIB Millenium Falcon LEGO set. Laboratories have been improving the processes and associated treatments for decades but experimental labs and even home laboratories are getting in on the action as some creative minds take the stage. These folks aren’t performing surgeries, but they are expanding what is possible to for people to do and learn without a medical license.

One promising gateway to human building blocks is the decellularization and recellularization of organic material. Commercial scaffolds exist but they are expensive, so the average tinkerer isn’t going to be buying a few to play with over a holiday weekend.

Let’s explore what all this means. When something is decellularized, it means that the cells are removed, but the structure holding the cells in place remains. Recellularizing is the process where new cells are grown in that area. Decellularizing is like stripping a Hilton hotel down to the girders. The remaining structures are the ECM or the Extra Cellular Matrix, usually referred to as scaffolding. The structure has a shape but no functionality, like a stripped hotel. The scaffolding can be repopulated with new cells in the same way that our gutted hotel can be rebuilt as a factory, office building, or a hospital.

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An Indoor Garden? That’s Arduino-licious

Gardening is a rewarding endeavour, and easily automated for the maker with a green thumb. With simplicity at its focus,  Hackaday.io user [MEGA DAS] has whipped up a automated planter to provide the things plants crave: water, air, and light.

[MEGA DAS] is using a TE215 moisture sensor to keep an eye on how thirsty the plant may be, a DHT11 temperature and humidity sensor to check the airflow around the plant, and a BH1750FVI light sensor for its obvious purpose. To deliver on these needs, a 12V DC water pump and a small reservoir will keep things right as rain, a pair of 12V DC fans mimic a gentle breeze, and a row of white LEDs supplement natural light when required.

The custom board is an Arduino Nano platform, with an ESP01 to enable WiFi capacity and a Bluetooth module to monitor the plant’s status while at home or away. Voltage regulators, MOSFETs, resistors, capacitors, fuses — can’t be too careful — screw header connectors, and a few other assorted parts round out the circuit. The planter is made of laser cut pieces with plenty of space to mount the various components and hide away the rest. You can check out [MEGA DAS]’ tutorial video after the break!

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Hacklab’s Logo Changes with the Habitat of a Beet Plant

Zaragoza, Spain hacklab La Remolacha (“The Beet”) sports a logo which responds to human interaction with a beet plant growing in the space. Sensors keep track of temperature as well as humidity for both air and ground, while buttons add more water, plant food, light, and music.

The shape and activity of the visualization responds to the sensors. The higher the temperature, the more folds in the shape. More distortions appear when there’s more humidity in the soil, while rotation speed increases with air humidity. Adding food increases the size of the visualization, and music triggers more vibrations.

An Arduino keeps track of the buttons and humidity sensors, while a nearby computer, connected via USB, sends the data to a node.js server. The data are displayed on the website through the torus visualization, which is done in WebGL.

The beet’s environment also signals the health of the space, because if no one is visiting, no one can feed the plant. On the other hand, could too many visitors actually kill the thing?

The project was created by [Innovart],  [Miguel Frago], and [Santi Grau] with help from other folks.

Thanks [Esther Borao Moros] for the tip!

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Growing Plants on Mars… on Earth

One of the biggest challenges of traveling to Mars is that it’s far away. That might seem obvious, but that comes with its own set of problems when compared to traveling to something relatively close like the Moon. The core issue is weight, and this becomes a big deal when you have to feed several astronauts for months or years. If food could be grown on Mars, however, this would make the trip easier to make. This is exactly the problem that [Clinton] is working on with his Martian terrarium, or “marsarium”.

The first task was to obtain some soil that would be a good analog of Martian soil. Obtaining the real thing was out of the question, as was getting similar dirt from Hawaii. [Clinton] decided to make his own by mixing various compounds from the hardware store in the appropriate amounts. From there he turned to creating the enclosure and filling it with the appropriate atmosphere. Various gas canisters controlled by gas solenoid valves mixed up the analog to Martian atmosphere: 96% dioxide, 2% argon, and 2% nitrogen. The entire experiment was controlled by an Intel Edison with custom circuits for all of the sensors and regulating equipment. Check out the appropriately dramatic video of the process after the break.

While the fern that [Clinton] planted did survive the 30-day experiment in the marsarium, it wasn’t doing too well. There’s an apparent lack of nitrogen in Martian soil which is crucial for plants to survive. Normally this is accomplished when another life form “fixes” nitrogen to the soil, but Mars probably doesn’t have any of that. Future experiments would need something that could do this for the other plants, but [Clinton] notes that he’ll need a larger marsarium for that. And, if you’re not interested in plants or Mars, there are some other interesting ramifications of nitrogen-fixing as well.

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The Internet Of Dirt, A Texting Plant

We will all at some point have forgotten to water a plant. If we’re lucky then the limp vegetation we return to will magically revive when we rush to water it, if not then we have the shame of an empty plant pot to remind us of our folly.

No matter, you might be thinking, we can bring technology to bear on the problem, and automate it with a microcontroller! [Bonnie] has done just that, with a capacitive soil sensor feeding an ESP8266-based Adafruit Feather HUZZAH, which in turn logs soil humidity data with the Adafruit IO online service. An IFTTT applet monitors the data, and triggers a notification when moisture falls to the point at which watering is required.

The Instructables write-up gives a comprehensive step-by-step guide to the whole process, including the code, so it’s a project that almost anyone could try as well as a basic introduction to using an online service with a piece of hardware. We can’t help asking, though, whether it might have been better to have had the system do the watering rather than merely administer a prod to its fleshy horticulturist creator. Perhaps that’s left to anyone else building one to add as an enhancement.

Quite a few plant watering automation projects have found their way onto these pages over the years, from this one using car parts to a system with an impressively simple valve made by compressing a flexible pipe. The ultimate watering device though has to be this fully autonomous greenhouse robot.

Guerrilla Grafters Grow Great Gifts for Greater Good

If you’ve been to downtown San Francisco lately, you might have noticed something odd about the decorative trees in the city: they’re now growing fruit. This is thanks to a group of people called the Guerrilla Grafters who are covertly grafting fruit-bearing twigs to city tress which would otherwise be fruitless. Their goal is to create a delicious, free source of food for those living in urban environments.

Biology-related hacks aren’t something we see every day, but they’re out there. For those unfamiliar with grafting, it’s a process that involves taking the flowering, fruiting, or otherwise leafy section of one plant (a “scion”) and attaching them to the vascular structure of another plant that has an already-established root system (the “stock”). The Guerrilla Grafters are performing this process semi-covertly and haven’t had any run-ins with city officials yet, largely due to lack of funding on the city’s part to maintain the trees in the first place.

This hack doesn’t stop at the biological level, though. The Grafters have to keep detailed records of which trees the scions came from, when the grafts were done, and what characteristics the stock trees have. To keep track of everything they’ve started using RFID tags. This is an elegant solution that can be small and inconspicuous, and is a reliable way to keep track of all of one’s “inventory” of trees and grafts.

It’s great to see a grassroots movement like this take off, especially when it seems like city resources are stretched so thin that the trees may have been neglected anyway. Be sure to check out their site if you’re interested in trying a graft yourself. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can take this process to the extreme.

Thanks to [gotno] for the tip!