Bionic Plants Are on The Way
So scientists have developed a way to use spinach to detect toxic chemicals including explosives and nerve gas. Then it alerts FEMA to mail everyone a gas mask. (Just kidding I made that up.) The plants can also kind of send emails– no, seriously. So here’s how it works and well, why it’s actually useful.
If you have ever thought, “plants are cool and all, but if only there was a way to utilize them as a technology platform,” you aren’t alone. “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,” said Michael Strano, leader of the MIT research team. Makes sense– they don’t require a power source so they’re kind of like little self-sustaining robots. And now, there’s a whole field dedicated to just that: plant nanobiotics.
Scientists basically just embed the spinach plants with nanoparticles or nanotubes which either give them superpowers or amplify powers they already have. From there the plant continues to absorb water and nutrients just as it always would, but it has the power to detect anything unusual or any changes. As the plant consumes water and nutrients, it’s able to detect when something unusual is present like nitric oxide, nerve gas, TNT, or hydrogen peroxide. When it notices something strange, the spinach plant emits an infrared signal which can be detected using a special camera. From there the camera is hooked up to a computer, which it can trigger to send an alert email. I’d like to think the email content is something along the lines of: “Spencer the spinach says ‘grab your gas mask, nerve gas is afoot!'”
Researchers at MIT are very excited they were finally able to overcome the plant/human communication barrier. No seriously, that’s really what he said: “This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier.” I mean, it is pretty freaking cool. Researchers are optimistic that this kind of technology could eventually be used to predict drought or other weather patterns, possibly with more accuracy than any man-made computer. “Plants are very good analytical chemists,” he 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 says.
I’m not sure why they specifically chose spinach. Maybe it has something to do with the plants high level of iron or other minerals. Either way, this sure gives a whole new meaning to the word “superfood.” (Yes, I said it. I had to. I’m sorry.)