Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have ingrained carbon nanotubes inside spinach leaves, turning the leaves into sensing units which are able to communicate with humans. This particular application is amongst the 1st demos of plant nanobionics, an area of research that rig electronic systems inside living plants.
“The goal of plant nanobionics is to install nanoparticles into the plant in order to give it non-native functionalities,” MIT Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering Michael Strano explained.
In this particular instance, the carbon nanotubes inserted in plants were fabricated to sense nitroaromatics, chemical compounds commonly used in bombs, present within groundwater. Upon detection, the leaves of the spinach plant produce a fluorescent signal which an infrared camera connected to a smartphone-sized computer examines. The computing device then wirelessly delivers an e-mail to alert about the chemicals.
Because they naturally take in extensive information from their surroundings, plants are the perfect choice for environmental monitoring. “Plants are excellent analytical chemists,” Stano remarked, “They have an extensive root network inside the ground, are continuously sampling groundwater, and have a method to self-power the transport of that ground water up into the leaves.”
Plant nanobionics was first demonstrated by Strano and his team a couple of years ago when these experts enhanced plants’ photosynthesis capability with nanoparticles so that they could sense the combustion pollutant nitric oxide. The research team has also utilized carbon nanotube implants in leaves in order to sense more than explosives: they have engineered plants that can detect dopamine, hydrogen peroxide, and the nerve agent, sarin – which was used in the deadly attacks recently inside Syria.
The researchers also plan to utilize this technology to combat drought and improve crop yields by optimizing soil quality. “These sensors give real-time data from the plant. It is almost like having the plant speak to us regarding the environment they operate in,” graduate student and scientist Min Hao Wong informed MIT News. “When it comes to precision agriculture, possessing such info can directly influence yield and margins.”