Technology evolves every day through the grace of the human mind. Recently, engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have conducted certain successful experiments in the field of plant Nanobionics. This domain involves experimental research that applies electronic sensors to plants. Thus, these engineers have utilized spinach plants and installed sensors in them. These sensors, hence, equips the plant to send emails when toxic pollutants accumulate inside it.
How was this spinach experiment done?
Incorporating a certain combination of carbon nanotubes and infrared cameras, the plant is functional to send an email whenever it traces toxic chemicals in the soil. The basic science behind this is that roots of the spinach plant can detect the presence of toxic materials in groundwater. Initially, this experiment was conducted to discover explosives. But the engineers have claimed that these systems can be utilized to inform us about the hazards of climate change and pollution. This is possible as plants are highly sensitive to ecological changes.
Nitroaromatics, the toxic compounds are a part of industrial emissions and explosives. These often seep into the ground and enter plant bodies. When the process of transpiration (water loss from leaves), occurs, these chemicals pile up in the mesophyll tissues present in the thick central part of leaves.
Hence to execute this experiment, the engineers had placed single-walled carbon nanotubes combined with fluorescent nanosensors inside leaf mesophylls. They also used nitrogen dioxide as the toxic pollutant to be tested in the experiment. Hence, whenever a leaf accumulated nitrogen dioxide, a signal was emanated which triggered a pre-progeny. Hence, this phenomenon rammed email alerts.
“Plants are very good analytical chemists,” explains Professor Michael Strano who led the research. “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.”
“This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier,” he adds.
Plants also possess the ability to react to environmental changes. Thus, researchers and scientists feel that plant Nanobionics could be an efficient tool to keep a check on the environment.
Strano, further remarks “Plants are very environmentally responsive” “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.”
What are the origins of the research?
This research is inspired by a 2016 study, published in the journal Nature Materials. However, it gained attention when in Feb 2021 Euronews report featured the research along with another new study from MIT.
It is also further observed that if not put into use for sending emails, spinach also acts as excellent fuel cells.
When spinach is converted into carbon nanosheets, it acts as a catalyst. Hence, the efficiency of metal-air batteries and fuel cells is boosted. This finding is the work of Scientists from the American University
The key researcher behind this paper Professor Shouzhong Zou says “This work suggests that sustainable catalysts can be made for an oxygen reduction reaction from natural resources.”
But, why specifically Spinach?
A different MIT team in its recent study discovered that powdered spinach consists of valuable amounts of carbon, iron, and nitrogen which are important components for oxygen reduction. Thus, it can be employed for preparing carbon nanosheets. These carbon nanosheet cells were further found efficient for oxygen reduction reactions to produce energy in fuel cells.
This discovery of turning a vegetable into valuable scientific equipment did blow the minds of several citizens. Several expressed their amazement through funny quips on Twitter.