Nanotechnology Could Create Bionic Plants
March 18, 2014

MIT Scientists Create New Field Of Science Called ‘Plant Nanobionics’

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

A team of MIT researchers writing in the journal Nature Materials say they have discovered the first steps in a new field of science known as "plant nanobionics."

The researchers found that they were able to boost a plant’s ability to capture light energy by 30 percent by embedding carbon nanotubes in the chloroplast. They were also able to use another type of carbon nanotube to modify the plants to detect nitric oxide.

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

The team believes the steps taken into this new field of scientific research could help turn plants into devices used to detect explosives or chemical weapons.

Researchers embedded plants with cerium oxide nanoparticles in order to prolong the chloroplasts’ productivity. The team delivered nanoceria into the chloroplasts by using a new technique they developed known as lipid exchange envelope penetration (LEEP).

The researchers also embedded semiconducting carbon nanotubes, coated in negatively charged DNA, into the chloroplasts. These carbon nanotubes could act as artificial antennae that could allow chloroplasts to capture wavelengths of light not in their normal range.

The team found that carbon nanotubes acting as a "prosthetic photoabsorber" had 49 percent greater photosynthetic activity than that in isolated chloroplasts without embedded nanotubes. Afterwards the team turned to living plants and used a technique called vascular infusion to deliver nanoparticles into a small flowering plant.

The scientists were able to use their methods to apply a solution of nanoparticles to the underside of the leaves, boosting photosynthetic electron flow by about 30 percent.

"We could someday use these carbon nanotubes to make sensors that detect in real time, at the single-particle level, free radicals or signaling molecules that are at very low-concentration and difficult to detect," plant biologist Juan Pablo Giraldo said in a statement.

James Collins, a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University who was not involved in the research, said the researchers’ study shows how nanotechnology could be coupled with synthetic biology to modify and enhance the function of living organisms.

"The authors nicely show that self-assembling nanoparticles can be used to enhance the photosynthetic capacity of plants, as well as serve as plant-based biosensors and stress reducers," Collins said in a statement.