Bionic plants use nanotubes to boost photosynthesis and act as environmental sensors

bionic plants with embedded nanotubes
© Bryce Vickmark

While we may be years away from seeing a real-life bionic man, research into the use of nanotechnology in living plants could yield bionic plants with enhanced energy production and the ability to detect pollutants and other environmental toxins.

We rely on living plants for food, for oxygen production, and for fuel, but they could soon also be used as real-time environmental monitors, thanks to the work of a team of researchers at MIT.

By embedding carbon nanotubes in the chloroplast of living plants (the part of the plant responsible for photosynthesis, among other functions), researchers have been able to boost energy production in plants by 30%, or turn them into living environmental sensors capable of detecting pollutants and toxins.

These bionic plants are said to hold a lot of promise for creating self-powered detectors for hazards such as chemical weapons or explosives, and may eventually incorporate electronic devices that could increase the functions of the plants for other applications.

"Plants are very attractive as a technology platform. They repair themselves, they’re environmentally stable outside, they survive in harsh environments, and they provide their own power source and water distribution." - Michael Strano, Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering and research team leader at MIT

The research grew out of a project at the lab to build self-repairing solar cells, which were modeled after the living cells of plants, in an attempt to enhance the photosynthetic potential of plant chloroplasts for possible inclusion into solar cell technology.

According to MIT, plants normally only use about 10% of the available sunlight, but when carbon nanotubes were embedded in the chloroplasts, they were found to act as "artificial antennae", and let the chloroplasts harvest wavelengths of sunlight which are not normally captured, including ultraviolet and near-infrared light.

The team applied a solution of nanoparticles to the underside of the leaves of a plant called Arabidopsis thaliana, where the material penetrated the stomata of the leaves and delivered nanotubes into the chloroplast, resulting in a boost of photosynthetic electron flow by 30%.

By using carbon nanotubes that could detect nitric oxide (a byproduct of combustion, and considered an environmental pollutant), the researchers turned the plant into a living chemical sensor, which could eventually lead to the creation of real-time monitors capable of detecting specific molecules at a very low concentration (in quantities as small as a single particle).

While the research has yielded some promising results, there are still plenty of questions about the effects of embedding nanotechnology in plants, including how the increased electron flow from photosynthesis may affect the sugar production in the plants.

The team's research was published in the Nature Materials journal: Plant nanobionics approach to augment photosynthesis and biochemical sensing

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