Ludovico Cademartiri, an Iowa State University assistant professor of materials science and engineering, is studying environmental effects on plant growth, specifically how variations in climate and soil characteristics affect root growth.
This requires highly controlled environments that expose whole plants to environmental effects such as nutrients, water, oxygen gradients as well as physical obstacles for the roots.
Greenhouses can create fairly controlled environments for whole plants, but they're homogeneous. And microfluidic technologies can create highly controlled micron-scale environments, but they're expensive, relatively complex and not easy to scale up.
Cademartiri was looking for a way to study plant and root growth that was simple, inexpensive and flexible.
He was looking for something modular, scalable and structurally precise, something transparent, three-dimensional, chemically inert and compatible with existing plant growth experiments.
He thought of the perfect something from the toy aisle: LEGO bricks.
Cademartiri and his research group used LEGO bricks to successfully build engineered environments for plant and root studies in a paper published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Kara Lind, an Iowa State doctoral student in materials science and engineering figured out how to configure transparent LEGO bricks to hold gel or other soil substitutes for germinating and growing plants.
She also experimented with ways to make the LEGO environments bigger to accommodate growing plants.
She developed techniques to create controlled chemical gradients in the LEGO environments with the intent of testing plant response to nutrients and toxins.
Researchers said they have demonstrated that LEGO bricks are highly convenient and versatile building blocks for building centimetre-scale engineered environments for plant roots.