MIT engineers have transformed spinach plants into sensors that detect explosive material in groundwater. The technology could be used to detect pollution and climate change in the future. (Image Credit: Annie Spratt/Unsplash)
Spinach plants are sending email messages to their creators, and no, it’s not spam. MIT scientists have engineered spinach plants with nanotechnology that allows them to send emails whenever explosive materials, like nitroaromatics, are detected. One day, scientists think that such plants could provide warnings about pollution or climate change.
The technology is part of a field that uses electronic components in plants, called “plant nanobionics,” and transforms the spinach plants into sensors. It works by using carbon nanotubes that run through the spinach plants’ leaves. The nanotubes then emit a fluorescent signal that’s picked up by infrared cameras. Afterward, an email is sent out to the researchers once the cameras detect a change.
The plants were designed in a way that allows the nanotubes to send a signal whenever nitroaromatics, a compound found in bombs and landmines, are detected in groundwater. These systems could also provide warnings when pollution or other environmental conditions, such as drought, are detected. In an initial experiment, the team used nanoparticles to turn plants into sensors that detect a pollutant, such as nitric oxide. This was achieved by modifying the plants’ photosynthesis process.
“Plants are very environmentally responsive,” Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the leader of the research team says. “They know that there is going to be a drought long before we do. They can detect small changes in the properties of soil and water potential. If we tap into those chemical signaling pathways, there is a wealth of information to access.”
It’s much easier to create plant nanobiotics instead of developing a new sensor. That’s because the plants are excellent when it comes to detecting chemicals in the air, soil, and groundwater.
Sending e-mails to researchers isn’t the only achievement spinach are capable of performing. They can also efficiently power fuel cells. Scientists from the American University have discovered that when spinach is transformed into carbon nanosheets, it behaves like a catalyst, making metal-air batteries and fuel cells more efficient. Spinach was selected because it’s rich in iron and nitrogen, which are the most important elements in compounds that behave like catalysts. The researchers ground the spinach into a powder so it can be used as nanosheets.
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