Technology has become a pervasive, all-encompassing entity of the modern world, almost to the point where it is impossible to live without it, and yet, there are still some people who refuse to send an email.
Now, in a boundary-breaking achievement, spinach (yes, the plant) has surpassed the technologically illiterate, accomplishing the task of not only sending an email, but providing the service of explosive materials detection.
I know, it sounds like the work of a mad scientist, but researchers at MIT actually managed to turn spinach into bomb sniffers.
The field itself, known as plant nanobionics, is centered around the use of specially-designed nanoparticles that when implanted into an organism will providing said organism with a new ability. In the case of MIT’s robo-spinach, the leaf mesophyll was injected with near-infrared fluorescent nanosensors, which are capable of detecting nitroaromatics, or the contaminants produced by explosive materials.
Having trouble understanding what that has to do with sending an email? Well, here’s the fun part.
Let’s imagine, for a moment, a hypothetical situation where an explosive device is buried in the ground near our bomb-squad spinach; an explosive device that is leaking nitroaromatics into the surrounding soil and water. Thankfully, the spinach, being a plant, draws up the contaminated groundwater near the explosive. The nitroaromatics then accumulate in the leaf tissue, which in turn triggers the sensors. These sensors not only detect nitroaromatics, but they also emit an infrared signal, which is easily picked up by a nearby smartphone camera. The camera then sends an email, relaying the information to the proper, non-sessile authorities, and the bomb is removed.
“Plants are very good analytical chemists,” said lead researcher Professor Michael Strano in an article from the MIT News Office. “They have an extensive root network in the soil, [and] are constantly sampling groundwater,”
As excited as they are to implement spinach bomb-sniffers at your nearest airport, Strano and his team are determined to illustrate the far-reaching implications of their research, and how nanobionics could be used practically in many other ways.
“Plants are very environmentally responsive,” Strano said. “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.”
Being a nanobionic expert, this wasn’t Strano’s first foray into the field. Back in 2014, Strano and Juan Pablo Giraldo, an assistant professor at the University of California, upgraded the photosynthetic capacity of a plant using carbon nanotubes. By implanting the tubes into the chloroplast (the energy- producing organelle of plants), they were able to increase the plants photosynthetic energy output by over 30 per cent.
“Plants are very attractive as a technology platform,” said Strano. “They repair themselves, they’re environmentally stable outside, they survive in harsh environments, and they provide their own power source and water distribution…The potential is really endless,”