Scientists teach spinach to send emails and they can warn us of climate change

It may look like something out of a futuristic sci-fi movie, but scientists have managed to engineer spinach plants capable of sending emails.

Thanks to nanotechnology, MIT engineers (United States) have transformed spinach into sensors capable of detecting explosive materials. And these plants are capable of transmitting this information wirelessly to scientists.

When spinach roots detect the presence of nitroaromatics in groundwater, a compound commonly found in explosives such as landmines, carbon nanotubes in the plant’s leaves emit a signal. This signal is read by an infrared camera, which sends an alert to scientists.

This experiment is part of a broader field of research involving the engineering of electronic components and systems in plants. The technology is known as “plant nanobionics” and consists of providing plants with new capabilities.

“Plants are very good analytical chemists,” explains Professor Michael Strano, who led the research. “They have an extensive network of roots in the soil, they are constantly sampling groundwater, and they have a way of self-driving the transport of that water to the leaves.”

“This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the communication barrier between plants and humans,” he adds.

Environmental potential

Although the goal of this experiment was to detect explosives, Strano and other scientists believe it could be used to help warn researchers about pollution and other environmental conditions.

Due to the large amount of data that plants absorb from their environment, they are in an ideal position to control ecological changes.

In the early stages of plant nanobionics research, Strano used nanoparticles to turn them into sensors for contaminants. By modifying the photosynthesis of plants, he managed to detect nitric oxide, a pollutant caused by combustion.

“Plants are very sensitive to the environment,” says Strano. “They know there is going to be a drought long before we do. They can detect small changes in soil properties and water potential. If we take advantage of these chemical signaling pathways, we can access a lot of information.”

When she’s not busy emailing researchers, spinach also seems to hold the key to efficiently powering fuel cells.

Scientists from the American University have discovered that when spinach is turned into carbon nanoplates, they can function as catalysts to help make metal-air batteries and fuel cells more efficient.

“This work suggests that sustainable catalysts for an oxygen reduction reaction can be made from natural resources,” explains Professor Shouzhong Zou, who led the work.

Metal-air batteries are a more energy efficient alternative to lithium-ion batteries, commonly found in commercial products such as smartphones.

Spinach was chosen for its abundance of iron and nitrogen, important elements in compounds that act as catalysts. The researchers had to wash, squeeze and grind the spinach into powder, turning it from its edible form to nanoplates suitable for the process.

“The method we tested can produce highly active carbon-based catalysts from spinach, which is a renewable biomass,” Zou adds. “In fact, we believe it outperforms commercial platinum catalysts in both activity and stability.”

That article was originally published in English in the vertical of Euronews Living.