Studying plant development is hard, roots are hidden by soil and branch out, platforms for experiments need to be scalable, and systematic research require repeated trials. Iowa State University Professor Ludovico Cadamartiri says that makes research expensive.
"And so 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. 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 experiment doesn't get done."
However, Dr. Cadamartiri found out a cheaper, easier way to study plant development. He uses LEGO as part of his study on environmental interactions.
He says it brings a lot of positives to the table. For one, LEGO pieces aren't particularly expensive, they're modular, see-through, don't interfere chemically with the subject plants, and can survive sterilization.
But it all comes back to his research, Dr. Cadamartiri wants to find out how exactly environmental conditions affect plant development, especially root development, a side of biology that isn't too well known. He says finding a better way of studying that gives scientists more control.
"We cannot really control the plant, that's not our job really. But we can certainly control an environment in which the plant grows in. And there is a growing consensus that an improved understanding of how plants react to their environment would be essential for improving the performance of our crops in the long term, and that is essentially a very important problem not just for Iowa or for the United States but globally."
Dr. Cademartiri says one goal of his research program is to allow engineers to make their own contributions to crop science.