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A team of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed spinach plants that can detect certain chemicals and send emails to tell scientists about their presence.
The plants are equipped with an advanced form of nanotechnology called nanobionics. To engineer the plants, the researchers incorporated electronic parts into their stems and leaves to give them new capabilities. The technology takes advantage of plants’ extreme sensitivity to chemicals in air, soil, and groundwater, which enables them to detect various changes in the environment.
According to lead researcher Professor Michael Strano, plants like spinach have an extensive root network that allows them to analyze elements in the soil and react to environmental changes. Strano added that the technology is a groundbreaking solution to the communication barrier between plants and humans.
The technology works by enabling the spinach roots to detect the presence of explosive chemicals similar to those in landmines. Once the chemicals are found, the nanotubes within the plant glow. This glow is read by an infrared camera connected to a small computer. The computer then emails the scientists and alerts them to the presence of the chemicals.
One researcher remarked that receiving real-time information from the plants is similar to having the plants talk about their environment.
The scientists believe that this plant technology can be used to help warn researchers about pollution, global warming, and other environmental conditions. It may also help farmers assess the nutrients and water content in the soil using the plants, which are more effective than any man-made device.
Botanists could also use the technology to understand the inner workings of plants better and keep track of plant health. Such knowledge would allow them to increase the amount of rare compounds created by plants like the Madagascar periwinkle, which is used for treating cancer.