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Self-Burying Seeds May Change the Future of Planting

Nature is filled with ingenious innovations and creative solutions that seem to be baked into its design. If we look closely enough, we can discover all kinds of tools and tactics that God gave plants and animals to survive and thrive and find ways to apply those mechanisms for the good of humans and the good of the planet.

A team of scientists and engineers at Carnegie Mellon University recently did just that.

Erodium’s Magical Planting Power

Erodium, also known as Alpine Geranium or Stork’s Bills, is a genus of flowering plants that includes 60 different species that are native to North Africa, Indomalaya, the Middle East, and Australia. Some species of this perky pink and purple plant have a special way of propagating. 

Erodium’s seeds are carried inside a thin, tightly wound stalk that acts as a corkscrew when it rains, drilling the seed into the soil as it unwinds. There, underneath the soil, the seed is safe to take root and grow, protected from predators and harsh weather.

Biodegradable Seed Carriers

Erodium inspired Lining Yao, who serves as the Cooper-Siegel Assistant Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon. Together with other engineers, Yao’s team analyzed the mechanisms Erodium uses to implant its seeds into soil so that they could engineer a similar seed carrier.

Aerial seed distribution by planes and drones has been a tactic people have used to seed difficult-to-reach regions in the past, but the results aren’t always great. Seeds can be swept away in heavy rain, baked in harsh heat, eaten by hungry birds, or trampled on by beasts. But if they’re given a chance to root into the soil, the likelihood they’ll grow increases significantly.

From their research and observations of Erodium, the team at Carnegie Mellon engineered E-seed, a biodegradable seed carrier that can be used for aerial seeding. The seed carrier can carry a variety of seeds or fertilizers and be distributed over various terrains. E-seed can also be adapted to different environmental conditions. 

According to a press release from Carnegie Mellon, “Erodium’s stalk forms a tightly wound, seed-carrying body with a long, curved tail at the top. When it begins to unwind, the twisting tail engages with the ground, causing the seed carrier to push itself upright. Further unwinding creates torque to drill down into the ground, burying the seed.”

Unlike Erodium’s single-tailed seed carrier, E-seed was designed with three tails. The additional tails make E-seed a more efficient version of Erodium’s seed burial method.

“Seed burial has been heavily studied for decades in terms of mechanics, physics and materials science, but until now, no one has created an engineering equivalent,” said Yao, who also serves as director of the Morphing Matter Lab in the School of Computer Science’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute. “The seed carrier research has been particularly rewarding because of its potential social impact. We get excited about things that could have a beneficial effect on nature.”

Restoring What Was Lost

One vision for the E-seed’s use includes supporting wetland restoration and reforestation efforts.

According to Our World in Data, about 10,000 years ago, 57% of the world’s habitable land was covered in forest. Since then, one-third of that forestland has been lost. 

In more recent natural history, it is estimated that 3.4 million square kilometers of inland wetlands have been lost in the last 300 years. Most of those areas have been converted for agricultural use.

These dramatic changes to the earth’s landscape don’t come without consequences. The loss of the world’s forests and wetlands means a decrease in biodiversity, loss of habitat, inability to naturally filter water, and fewer trees to store carbon dioxide, which means a planet with disrupted natural climate control.

Part of the climate crisis solution is to stop deforestation and wetland conversion, but we can also move closer toward the Garden of Eden and God’s original design by taking additional steps to restore what has been lost.

“Technologies like E-seed can help us address real-world problems—helping us avoid landslides, reducing the impact of invasive species and improving reforestation of hard-to-reach places,” said Andreea Danielescu, director of the Future Technologies R&D group at Accenture Labs.

Innovations like E-seed take the very best in the world—powerful brains, empathetic hearts, and nature’s marvelous design—to design something that is useful, beneficial, and beautiful to bring life out of ruin… yet another resurrection story that reflects the glory of God’s good work, carried out through human hands.

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