New "bionic plants" could replace street lights and cell towers

Researchers at MIT have boosted the photosynthetic power of plants by a factor of three after injecting them with specialized nanoparticles. In the future, these biologically uplifted plants could be converted into energy factories and environmental sensors.

The MIT researchers were able to create these juiced-up cyber-plants by embedding carbon nanotubes into their chloroplast — the part of the plant responsible for photosynthesis. The plants became sensitive to specific substances, which could eventually lead to any number of applications, such as converting them into environmental sensors (to detect toxins, pathogens, or explosives), using them as clean and efficient power plants, and to enhance their capacity for self-repair (which could allow scientists to better harness plant energy as a fuel). Actually, these plants could conceivably be converted into virtually anything (so long as the power requirement is met), including street lights and cell phone towers.

According to lead researcher Michael Strano, two techniques are used to deliver the nanoparticles to the plant: vascular infusion — the use of pressure to force a nanoparticle solution through the pores of a leaf — and lipid exchange envelope penetration, or LEEP — where nanoparticles are covered in a special coating that promotes absorption of the nanoparticle through the chloroplast membrane.

From the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

The work is the first step, he says, in harnessing the energy and potential of plants. "It is important we to start to see plants as the starting point of technology. They have these advantages of self-repair and are made of materials that survive harsh environments and have their own water source," he says. Strano says one of the main uses they are currently investigating is turning a living plant into a chemical sensor. "Plants have the ability to sample through gas exchange a large portion of their environment and water ... so are a great place to put a sensor," he says. Using the new nanobionic techniques the team can inject particles into the plant that are sensitive to pollutants such as nitrous oxide. If the pollutant is detected the nanobionically altered plant emits light in the near infrared which is then detected by imaging cameras. Strano says his team has been successful in increasing photosynthetic activity in the plants by a factor of three. The enhancement occurs because the nanoparticles broaden the spectrum of captured light. However, he says they are still trying to evaluate whether this increase will lead to an enhanced plant growth rates, which would be a valuable tool in agriculture.

Read more at the ABC. You can find the study here. Image via MIT.

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