Researchers at MIT have designed spinach plants capable of detecting buried landmines and other hidden explosives.
Scientists embedded the leaves of spinach plants with carbon nanotubes, transforming the plant into a bomb-sniffing, signal-sending electrical system. Researchers call such a transformation “plant nanobionics.”
“The goal of plant nanobionics is to introduce nanoparticles into the plant to give it non-native functions,” Michael Strano, a professor of chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told MIT News.
Strano and his research partners described the new technology in the Nature Materials.
The spinach and its nanotubes are designed to react to nitroaromatics, found in landmines and leeched into the soil surrounding buried explosives. When the plant’s roots and vascular system suck up water laced with nitroaromatics, the nanotubes give off a fluorescent light than can be detected by an infrared camera.
The novel technology allows plants and humans to communicate, opening an array of nanobionic environmental monitoring possibilities.
“Plants are very good analytical chemists,” Strano said. “They have an extensive root network in the soil, are constantly sampling groundwater, and have a way to self-power the transport of that water up into the leaves.”
Researchers say their basic nanobionics technique could be used in almost any plant, and the signals could be detected by a smartphone outfitted with the right camera.
The technology offers a live view into the inner workings of the plant. The nanotubes could be designed to signal a variety of data, which could be utilized to improve plant health and crop yields.
“It is almost like having the plant talk to us about the environment they are in,” explained co-author Min Hao Wong, an MIT graduate student. “In the case of precision agriculture, having such information can directly affect yield and margins.”
Filed Under: Materials • advanced