Bionic Plants: MIT Researchers Augment Plants With Nanomaterials

Posted on March 19, 2014

A bionic plant in MIT lab detecting nitric oxide


MIT researchers have augmented plants with nanomaterials to boost their energy production. The researchers embedded carbon nanotubes in the chloroplast, the plant organelle where photosynthesis takes place. This increased the plants' ability to capture light by 30%. The researchers also used another type of carbon nanotube to turn the plant into a detector of the gas nitric oxide. The researchers say these are the first steps in a new field they are calling plant nanobionics. Nanobionics could lead to enhanced plants that can provide energy and warn us about deadly chemicals in the air around us.

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

One of the uses for bionic plants is to make them into chemical sensors like the researchers did by using carbon nanotubes to enable Arabidopsis thaliana plants to detect nitric oxide. The researchers say plants could also be used to detect many different chemicals, including hydrogen peroxide, the explosive TNT, and the nerve gas sarin.

Plant biologist Juan Pablo Giraldo, lead author of the research paper, says, "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."

The research was funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Energy. The research paper, "Plant nanobionics approach to augment photosynthesis and biochemical sensing," was published here in Nature Materials.

Photo: Bryce Vickmark/MIT