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Let's Make Slaver Sunflowers! Engineering Plants To Reflect Light

In his 1965 novel World of Ptavvs, Larry Niven introduces the Slaver sunflower, a plant able to reflect light:

The plant stood a foot high on a knobbly green stalk. Its single blossom was as big as a large man's face. The back of that blossom was stringy, as if laced with veins or tendons; and the inner surface was a smooth concave mirror. From its center protruded a short stalk ending in a dark green bulb.


(Sunflower from 'World of Ptavvs')

All the flowers in sight watched him. He was bathed in the glare. Louis knew they were trying to kill bun, and he looked up somewhat uneasily; but the cloud cover held.

"You were right," he said, speaking into the intercom. "They're Slaver sunflowers. If the cloud cover hadn't come up, we'd have been dead the instant we rose over the mountains..."

There was no alien survivor anywhere in the domain of the sunflowers. No smaller plant grew between the stalks. Nothing flew. Nothing burrowed beneath the ashy-looking soil. On the plants themselves there were no blights, fungus growths, disease spots. If disease struck one of their own, the sunflowers would destroy it.

Recently, efforts have been made to try to engineer plants so they reflect more sunlight back into space:


(Strategies for engineering more reflective plants:
(i) Thin-film interference,
(ii) Reflection from photonic crystal structures,
(iii) Re-radiation via fluorescence
)

Population growth and globally increasing standards of living have put a significant strain on the energy–food–water nexus. Limited water availability particularly affects agriculture, as it accounts for over 70% of global freshwater withdrawals (Aquastat).

This study outlines the fundamental nature of plant water consumption and suggests a >50% reduction in renewable freshwater demand is possible by engineering more reflective crops. Furthermore, the decreased radiative forcing resulting from the greater reflectivity of crops would be equivalent to removing 10–50 ppm CO2 from the atmosphere.

Recent advances in engineering optical devices and a greater understanding of the mechanisms of biological reflectance suggest such a strategy may now be viable. Here we outline the challenges involved in such an effort and suggest three potential approaches that could enable its implementation.

(Engineering plants to reflect light: strategies for engineering water-efficient plants to adapt to a changing climate)

Do we really want Slaver sunflowers?

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