Bionic spinach can sense explosives

Posted Nov 7, 2016 by Tim Sandle
In strange-but-true science, researchers have embedded carbon nanotubes into the leaves of spinach, enabling the ‘bionic’ plant to gain the capability to detect explosives.
Leaves of Spinach
Leaves of Spinach
David Paul Morris, Getty/AFP/File
The case, a proof-of-concept study, is one of the first to show how an electronic system can be engineered into a plant and it could lead to a new scientific field being formed, called “plant nanobionics.” The reason why plants serve as potential for such technology is because they take in considerable information from the surrounding environment.
The point of this equipping of plants with advanced technology is to enable the plants to detect specific chemical compounds. In the research, the aim is to detect a class of chemicals called nitroaromatics. These chemicals are commonly used in landmines and other explosives.
The plant would, once fitted with the sensor technology, be able to detect chemicals present in groundwater. This process is termed ‘vascular infusion’ and it concerns applying a solution of nanoparticles to the underside of the leaf.
As the plant draws in water, carbon nanotubes embedded in the plant leaves would emit a fluorescent signal. Plants take in a considerable amount of information from their surroundings due to their extensive root network.
The signal could then be read using an infrared camera. To read the signal, a laser is shone onto the leaf. This prompts the nanotubes in the leaf to emit near-infrared fluorescent light. The aim is to warn farmers of a build-up of pollutants that could potential damage any entire field of agricultural produce. The technology could also warn farmers about impending droughts.
Discussing the concept further, lead researcher Professor Michael Strano states in his research note: “The goal of plant nanobionics is to introduce nanoparticles into the plant to give it non-native functions.” He also added: “This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier.”
In addition, the addition of robotics to the vegetable enables the collected information to be sent wirelessly to a remote device, such as smartphone.
The research has been published in the journal Nature Materials. The research is titled “Nitroaromatic detection and infrared communication from wild-type plants using plant nanobionics.”