MIT Scientists Tweak Plants Using Nanotechnology To Detect Explosives And Pollution

First Posted: Nov 12, 2016 04:20 AM EST

Many gardeners across the world are convinced that talking to plants help them grow healthier and faster. While there is definitely no scientific evidence backing such belief, researchers seem to be of the view that plants can indeed communicate with people to reveal a lot about the environment, albeit in a non-supernatural way. 

According to The Country, as nanotechnologist and science educator Dr. Michelle Dickinson points out in her new column, through a solar powered, low-cost process called phytoremediation, not only is it possible to gauge various environmental parameters locally but also manipulate them for the betterment of our surroundings.

Phytoremediation is already in use for slowing down the movement of contaminated groundwater. Thus, it helps "prevent excess agriculture produced nitrogen run-off from entering the waterways," notes Dickinson.

However, a group of researchers in the U.S. is now taking phytoremediation to the next level by merging it with nanobionics, the process of improvising biology with the help of nanotechnology.

They have tried injecting select plants with tiny tubes of carbon, each with the width 2,000 times thinner than the average width of a single human hair. Using this method, the researchers were able to turn the leaves into virtual sensors with the ability to detect specific toxic materials.

Simply put, the technology can be tweaked and used to detect any toxin of interest. Not just that but it also proactively helps remove the toxic substance from the soil.

"The goal of plant nanobionics is to introduce nanoparticles into the plant to give it non-native functions," says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the leader of the research team, MIT News reports.

In their experiment, the MIT researchers used carbon nanotubes capable of detecting nitro-aromatic compounds, most commonly used in explosives including landmines. By using the technology, they were able to enable the plants on the test area to absorb the said chemical present in groundwater. As the plants begin absorbing the chemicals, they emit a near-infrared fluorescent light that can be read with an infrared camera. 

"This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier," says Strano.

The researchers believe that this is just the beginning, adding that with increasing capacity to tap into the chemical pathways of plants, people will eventually be able to have much deeper insight into the environment they live in and to manipulate it for removing harmful materials.

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