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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Popeye's Spinach Was Never Like This: The Superfood Is Also An Explosives Detector!

     Spinach is no longer just a superfood. By embedding spinach leaves with carbon nanotubes, MIT engineers have transformed spinach plants into sensors that can detect explosives, wirelessly relaying that information to a handheld device similar to a smartphone.

     This is one of the first demonstrations of engineering electronic systems into plants, an approach that the researchers call plant nanobionics. "The goal of plant nanobionics is to introduce nanoparticles into the plant to give it non-native functions," says Dr. Michael Strano, the leader of the research team.

      A carbon nanotube is a tube-shaped material, made of carbon, having a diameter measuring on the nanometer scale. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter or about 10,000 times smaller than a human hair. The bonds in carbon nanotubes are extremely strong.

     In this case, the plants were designed to detect chemical compounds known as nitroaromatics, which are often used in landmines and other explosives. When one of these chemicals is present in the groundwater sampled naturally by the plant, carbon nanotubes embedded in the plant leaves emit a fluorescent signal that can be read with an infrared camera. The camera can be attached to a small computer similar to a smartphone, which then sends an e-mail to the user.

     "This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier," says Strano, who believes plant power could also be harnessed to warn of pollutants and environmental conditions such as drought. Strano is the senior author of a paper describing the nanobionic plants in the October 31, 2016, issue of Nature Materials

     Two years ago, in the first demonstration of plant nanobionics, Strano and others used nanoparticles to enhance plants' photosynthesis ability and to turn them into sensors for nitric oxide, a pollutant produced by combustion.

      "Plants are very good analytical chemists," Strano says. "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."

      Strano's lab has previously developed carbon nanotubes that can be used as sensors to detect a wide range of molecules, including hydrogen peroxide, the explosive TNT, and the nerve gas sarin. When the target molecule binds to a polymer wrapped around the nanotube, it alters the tube's fluorescence.

      In the new study, the researchers embedded sensors for nitroaromatic compounds into the leaves of spinach plants. Using a technique called vascular infusion, which involves applying a solution of nanoparticles to the underside of the leaf, they placed the sensors into a leaf layer known as the mesophyll, which is where most photosynthesis takes place.

      They also embedded carbon nanotubes that emit a constant fluorescent signal that serves as a reference. This allows the researchers to compare the two fluorescent signals, making it easier to determine if the explosive sensor has detected anything. If there are any explosive molecules in the groundwater, it takes about 10 minutes for the plant to draw them up into the leaves, where they encounter the detector.

     To read the signal, the researchers shine a laser onto the leaf, prompting the nanotubes in the leaf to emit near-infrared fluorescent light. This can be detected with a small infrared camera connected to a Raspberry Pi, an inexpensive credit-card-sized computer similar to the computer inside a smartphone. The signal could also be detected with a smartphone by removing the infrared filter that most camera phones have, the researchers say.

      Using this setup, the researchers can pick up a signal from about 1 meter away from the plant; they are working on increasing that distance.

      The researchers have also genetically engineered spinach plants that can detect dopamine, which influences plant root growth, and they are now working on additional sensors, including some that track the chemicals plants use to convey information within their own tissues.

     "Plants are very environmentally responsive," Strano says. "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."

     These sensors could also help botanists learn more about the inner workings of plants, monitor plant health, and maximize the yield of rare compounds synthesized by plants such as the Madagascar periwinkle, which produces drugs used to treat cancer.

     Remember all that talking to plants research in the 1970's? Well, now the plants are talking back!

What are your plants saying?


  1. Arggh, John Elway is doing ads for Prop 71 here in CO. Far too much big oil money involved in trying to make it so that any ballot initiative would need signatures from across the state. Prima facie, it looks reasonable but deeper digging (love that deep digging) means it would cost $3 million and more to get issues on the ballot.

  2. I was reminded (perhaps because of all the hexagonal imagery on this page} of a news story similar to this that I heard probably before the turn of the century [I think Peter Jennings may have been reporting it]. I thought you'd enjoy the wordplay in the title.

    I Wonder if cottage cheese on a bed of spinach (instead of lettuce), topped with raspberries (rather than pineapple or peaches) would be good?

    1. Bumblebees is great word play, Paul. Thanks for the video. The bees didn't look especially happy in those harnesses but I suppose we don't know all about The Secret Life of Bees.

      But, thanks to your second link, we have seen The Secret Life of Plants with Stevie Wonder. Enjoyed Stevie in the woods, lilly pads, but especially, in the sunflowers.


    2. BOMBLEbees! Darn autocorrect!

    3. The bomblebees with defective sniffers (proboscides) are called bunglebees.


    4. Since you brought up baseball, Lego, what a game last night!

  3. I knew that spinach had to be good for something!

    1. All that yummy iron, fiber, and folate exploding on your taste buds, eh?!

    2. Not to mention all the sand that invariably accompanies it onto your plate. Oh, but you're a geologist; you like sand, too.

    3. It adds a new meaning to "friable!"

    4. Indeed, Paul. Those Star Trek props were pretty strange-looking, eh?

    5. "Life, after all, is about organization, function, and accurate reproduction."

      Ah, that's what it's all about, Paul. Thanks for the post!

    6. Have you tried massaging fresh kale with avocado? It makes it much more tender and palatable. . .and it's fun to do.

    7. If my vegetables want to get frisky when the refrigerator door is closed, that's their business. But I'm not getting involved.

  4. Replies
    1. I missed the January 26, 1948 one. What was I doing that night?

    2. Were you even a twinkle in your parents' eyes then?

  5. Replies
    1. Hmm, a crater 2.6 km across doesn't seem that large to me. To you?

  6. Replies
    1. Thanks, Paul. I needed that. Cracked nut collecting now. . .

  7. New post on "Giant Sloth Coprolite From Nevada: This Poop is Fair to Midden" is now up. Excrementally Fun!