But the theoretical model does more than add credence the first paper’s experimentally-driven results, Seale says. “With a model, they can explore things we can’t explore experimentally very easily...including how these structures can be used in new and different ways,” she says.

For instance, plugging different numbers into the Swiss team’s equations could aid the design of better microdelivery systems, says Siobhan Braybrook, who studies plant form and function at the University of California, Los Angeles, but was not involved in either study. Someday, pappus-like structures could play a role in tasks like airdropping fertilizer or transporting teeny robots.

One thing that’s probably not in our future, though, is a dandelion-inspired parachute for people or their parcels, Braybrook adds. We humans (and most of the things we buy) are far too big and bulky for the same physical principles to apply. “For this design to be relevant...you need to talk about objects that are incredibly light or incredibly small,” she says.

The dandelion's sparse, tufted pappus creates a swirling pocket of air called a vortex ring in the space above it. The pappus is mostly empty space, but the 100 or so filaments that comprise it hit a "sweet spot" between creating just enough drag to keep it aloft, while maintaing the seed's stability. Image Credit: Courtesy of Cathal Cummins, Madeleine Seale, Enrico Mastropaolo, Ignazio Maria Viola, and Naomi Nakayama

Unless, that is, we fiddle with one pesky constraint: gravity itself. “If we were on a different planet...we might need to come up with different ways of dealing with drag,” Braybrook says. “In that kind of situation, [this model] could be incredibly relevant.”

We’re not quite ready to deploy those tactics just yet. In the meantime, there are still exciting opportunities to study some marvels of innovation right here on Earth: Many other plants spread their seed by wind; even some animals have evolved specialized structures that help them navigate through air or water.

As research on these organisms and more continues to take flight, a one-size-fits-all equation probably won’t apply. But maybe that’s part of the beauty of this dazzlingly simple system.

“Nature has optimized something so beautiful,” Braybrook says. “For us, it’s only as we start to develop [new technologies] that we start thinking about these problems...but nature’s already done the work. We have the best simulations ever in the products of evolution.”

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