The Sundew, while not as famous as the Venus Flytrap, is a type of carnivorous plant. Each one of its leaves is covered with miniscule projections, which are tipped with what look like drops of morning dew. These ‘droplets’ are actually sticky secretions. Insects which are attracted to the plant by sweet secretions land on the leaves and become ensnared by the mucilage*, after which the sundew slowly digests the insect.
Mingjun Zhang, a biomedical researcher from the University of Tennessee has demonstrated that the adhesive secretions of the Sundew may be ideal for a range of medical procedures, particularly for the regrowth of damaged tissues. Theoretically, healthy cells can be delivered to the area of injury and they may integrate themselves into the body. However, these cells require a ‘scaffold’ to which they can adhere. These scaffolds provide physical support to the cells as they proliferate and differentiate. Ideally, the scaffold must be biodegradable, such that it will leave no trace.
Clearly, the scaffolds need to be stringently tested. Many engineers have spent a lot of time searching for the ideal scaffold. Zhang believes that the sundew mucilage might be just the thing they’ve been looking for. Not only is it natural and biodegradable, it’s also sticky enough to grip onto cells and elastic enough to “bend and stretch and shift as cells proliferate and tissues grow.”
In 2010, Zhang coated a silicon wafer with the substance and observed it under a microscope, noting that the adhesive was a complicated network of nanofibers forming a porous scaffold, with holes that were just the right size for cell attachment. Then, Zhang applied the mucilage onto glass slides and seeded it with living rat brain cells. A day later, the cells had adhered securely and proliferated wonderfully. 98% of the cells were viable. In 2011, Zhang showed that the adhesive could also be used with bone and skin cells. Zhang believes that with further research, the usage of this Sundew mucilage for wound recovery could be viable. In Zhang’s own words, “Nature does beautiful things. We should definitely learn from that.”