In early February 2021, advances in research from 2017 allowed scientists to implement nanobiotechnology in spinach roots, allowing them to detect artificial substances. These can include threats from explosives to soil pollution. This data can then be shared by the plants with scientists via email.
As part of plant nanobionics, a science that uses electronic systems to power plants and gives them new skills, this technology uses spinach to further develop explosive detecting technology.
The lead author of the research, Professor Michael Strano, told Euro News “[Plants] 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.”
With the nanobots implanted in their roots, spinach can detect nitroaromatics (a component commonly found in explosives) and arsenic in the soil. Electronic sensors, or nanotubes, in the leaves help process this information and send a wireless signal, which infrared cameras in constant surveillance will pick up. Lastly, the information is sent to scientists via email.
While the research’s primary goal was to detect explosive material, scientists found that this technology can be used to detect and help prevent pollution using nanoparticles. Strano said: “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 signalling pathways, there is a wealth of information to access.”
Nanoparticles are often used in agriculture to augment a plant’s photosynthesis, changing the quality and quantity of light they absorb and use. In this situation, how plants photosynthesise is modified to perceive nitrous oxide and other pollutants.
Furthermore, when covered with carbon nanosheets, the spinach plant can act as a cathode for metal-air batteries. After being washed and grided, scientists can use the plant to catalyse these batteries’ energy, making them more efficient than the alternative – lithium-based batteries, commonly found in phones. The reason why spinach is a great conductor is that the plant is rich in iron and nitrogen.
Professor Shouzhong Zou, who led the paper, told Euro News that “the method we tested can produce highly active, carbon-based catalysts from spinach, which is a renewable biomass.” He added: “In fact, we believe it outperforms commercial platinum catalysts in both activity and stability.”
In 2017, MIT began the research of these nanobionic techniques in the hope of detecting explosive residue, but the technology has evolved and can be used to monitor effects like pollution or ecological changes. Strano described these advancements as “a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier.”