Ra’al Ki Victorieux
If you are one of those persons who dream about getting a spinach pen friend, maybe now it’s more possible your dreams can become true. Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), using nanotechnology, have managed to aloud spinach plants to detect explosives, or sampling groundwater, and alert them by email. This application is called “plant nanobiotics”, something that we’ll hear more often in the near future because of the immense potential this technology has. Professor Micheal Strano, one of the lead researchers, said this experiment is a “novel demonstration” of how the plant-human communication. Popeye would be proud, don’t you think?
When explosive molecules bind to the plant’s leaves, these emit a telltale infrared signal that can be read with cheap equipment — even a smartphone with the right camera. Strano and colleagues first developed carbon nanotubes — a tube-shaped material, made of carbon, having a diameter measuring on the nanometer scale — which can sense a wide range of molecules, including TNT, sarin nerve gas or hydrogen peroxide. Using a technique known as vascular infusion, the researchers applied a solution of these nanoparticles to the underside of the spinach’s leaves. This allows the plant to detect nitroaromatics, which are often used in landmines and other explosives. When one of these chemicals binds to the tubes, it alters their fluorescence. Another set of carbon nanotubes was embedded in the plant which emits a constant fluorescent signal. This serves as a reference to compare the explosive-detection fluorescent signal against a background and drastically speeds up detection. If there are any explosives in groundwater, for instance, the spinach bomb detector can draw them in under 10 minutes. To read the signal, a laser is shone onto the leaf prompting the leaves to emit near-infrared fluorescent light. Then, a small infrared camera connected to a cheap computer, like a $35 Raspberry Pi, can be used to monitor the signals. A smartphone whose infrared filter from the camera is removed can also be used with accuracy.
Sure, we know plants are very good listeners, but now we can start to perceive objectively the great intelligence of these beings who continuously monitor the air, soil, moisture, and water, in order to adapt to the slightest weather and climate fluctuations and survive. They are great chemists, with an extensive sensitive network. Oh, but you already knew that about your green wise friends.
“When you have manmade materials infiltrated into a living organism, you can have plants do things that plants don’t ordinarily do,” says McAlpine, who was not involved in the research. “Once you start to think of living organisms like plants as biomaterials that can be combined with electronic materials, this is all possible.”
Ok, I think we should be cautious. Who decides where to insert manmade materials? Maybe some researchers think that human communities can become more useful if they are infiltrated with nanosensors to inform or -fill in the blank- ecosystem variations. We should attend to this knowledge also with some ethical laws to regulate it. Some of the farmaceuticals are already using this technology in order to know if the patients ingest the prescribed drugs, and when they do it. And perhaps they also get informed about other random things? Are you now a human-spinach being sending emails to your favorite pharma researchers?
I’m sure you remember the phosphorescent art rabbit “made” by the transgenic artist Eduardo Kac, and other art practices that already are putting the infiltrated concept on stage. But there’s more to it. The Research Center for Colloids and Nanoscience (CSGI) in Italy explore the possibilities of nanosciences to contribute to the field of art conservation. One example is oil-in-water nanodroplets called micelles and microemulsions, which have been used to remove dirt and grime from wall and easel paintings. They provide an alternative to hydrocarbon-containing organic solvents like petroleum ether and white spirit, which are less environmentally friendly. They also are highly efficient in the cleaning process, because the high surface area of the nanodroplets of the organic solvent increases their interaction with surfaces. Also, another project: Through the NANORESTART, in the US, research scientists and conservators at Tate are working in collaboration with many of our colleagues throughout Europe and further afield, to find solutions to the cleaning and other preservation problems associated with plastic objects and synthetic polymer paints.
We’ll certainly witness lots of nano-breakthroughs very soon. Be aware and stay tuned. I hope you like this article, please like, comment and share. See you soon.