Andrew Pelling began his featured presentation on Monday by telling a story about his younger self—an eager graduate student who was constantly designing experiments based on whatever sparked his curiosity. However, when he would share his findings with others, they would inevitably ask the “soul-crushing” question “What’s the application?” As he explained to the audience, this led him to believe that knowledge and curiosity in and of itself had no value unless you assign a dollar amount to it.
This drove Pelling to create another type of lab—one that doesn’t work on any one thing in particular. It would be “a space to ask any question as long as it is followed by rigorous use of the scientific method,” said Pelling. The Pelling Lab at the University of Ottawa brings together artists, scientists, social scientists, and engineers, which, according to Pelling, is the basis for its success. The diversity offers more perspectives and leads people to “ask unconventional and weird questions, which led to better research projects,” said Pelling.
The projects include a wearable device that sends hugs over Twitter and light-emitting living skins that they put on Lego figurines. One project was inspired by the movie Little Shop of Horrors and the man-eating plant Audrey Jr. The researchers wanted to know if they could grow the half-man half-plant creature. At the same time, some of the researchers were working on a decellularization project, which removes the cells and DNA from tissue, leaving behind collagen and elastin. This can be used in artificial organ and tissue regeneration. Sadly, the project to recreate the Little Shop of Horrors Audrey Jr. failed because the leaves’ waxy coating prevents the decellularization process.
However, one of the researchers had the idea to use an apple, which, when peeled, is the perfect candidate for decellularization. Once the process is complete, the researchers were left with cellulose that they were then able to inoculate with human muscle fibers. This demonstrates that human cells can thrive on the fibrous structures of plants, which opens the door to someday having a low-cost, globally accessible biomaterial that can be used to regrow skin, bones, and organs.None of this would have been possible, explained Pelling, without the initial idea of recreating Audrey Jr. from Little Shop of Horrors. By focusing on asking questions and embarking on research with no attachment to a specific outcome, Pelling forces creativity and the scientific method to act in parallel rather than in opposition to one another. And the scientific discoveries produced from that approach may very well change the world.