Light-Up Plants

Glowing trees that can replace street lights and spinach that can send out emails to warn of approaching danger sounds like the stuff of fantasy.

But a laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is pioneering what its lead scientist Prof. Michael Strano has named plant nanobionics, is bringing these things closer to reality.

Rather than tampering with genes to get plants to do certain things, plant nanobionics inserts miniscule pieces of machinery into them — tiny engineered particles that can access a plant’s cells and even subcellular structures, such as chloroplasts.

Scientists have known for some time that plants communicate with one another and with the outside world, but Strano’s research opens the door for humans to hack into the signals a plant sends itself, getting the plant to report what is happening — via email.

“The plant is exquisitely sensitive to everything; for example, heat stress. It knows when there’s going to be drought before humans. It senses insect bites,” Strano told The Times of Israel in a Zoom interview.

In 2016, Strano’s lab published research showing that nanobionics could be used to tap into a plant’s super-sensitive detection capabilities, giving farmers and others access to the plant’s diagnostic tools.

Because they are not independently mobile, plants have developed an extraordinary set of skills to monitor and act upon the minutest of changes in their environment.

Roots, which must look for water and nutrients, are able to detect substances that can endanger the plant, such as pollutants or soil-based pests.

Strano’s team managed to develop and embed minuscule sensors into the water-carrying vascular tissue of spinach leaves to pick up information about materials sucked up by the roots and sent to the leaves.

These sensors are made by combining infinitesimally small tubes with a polymer coating to create fluorescence and emit light.

The nanotubes measure 0.7 to 1.5 nanometers in diameter and can be hundreds of nanometers long. Given that 25,400,000 nanometers are equivalent to just one inch, they can only be seen with an electron microscope.

The glowing sensors are so tiny that they can literally be pushed into the leaf without harming the plant, where the fluorescence changes color the moment the target material binds with the polymer coating.

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2021-03-17T03:05:58+00:00March 17th, 2021|Uncategorized|0 Comments