Leaves of iron

By | Science & Technology
Scientists have incorporated nanotechnology into plants. Credit @ chandres wikimedia cc

A team of engineers and biologists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have incorporated plant cells with nanotechnology. The benefits of such a combination are yet to be universally agreed upon, though it is hoped that alongside improved photosynthesis, the enhanced plants could eventually be used to create new types of bionic materials.

The team claim to have been able to inject nano-materials deep into plants, so that they can reach chloroplasts inside the plant’s cells. Chloroplasts are responsible for photosynthesis. They absorb sunlight and use the energy to create sugar from carbon dioxide and water. The nano-materials used in this experiment have supposedly enhanced this process.

The idea that this technology could be used to create materials that have the ability to repair themselves, or grow, just by absorbing sunlight is still far off. However, the aim is that the research could eventually be used to create phones (or even buildings) that can power and repair themselves, or even a new type of fuel cell. “The vision is to use plants as a platform for technology,” says the team leader, Michael Strano.

Chloroplasts can continue photosynthesising for several hours after they have been removed from a plant. Eventually, they will cease as they get degraded by free radicals. The idea behind the research conducted by Strano’s team is to extend the useable life of chloroplasts by combining them with a substance called nanoceria. “Ultimately we want to make a chloroplast that can sit on a shelf and absorb sunlight and make sugar,” says Strano.

The experiment has received some constructive attention from the scientific community: “This is such an interesting development. The research uncovers novel ways to hybridise hardware and wetware and to assemble, in principle, nano-circuits inside plants’ living cells,” according to Andrew Adamatzky, of the University of the West of England.

As James Collins, a synthetic biologist from Boston University, says: “This is a interesting demonstration of how nanotechnology can be coupled with synthetic biology to modify and enhance the function of living organisms. The authors show that self-assembling nanoparticles can be used to enhance the photosynthetic capacity of plants.”

Marek Urban, of Clemson University in South Carolina, raised some points about the fact the research is still at an early stage: “Many items need to be addressed to justify the validity of these studies. There are a lot of big statements in this paper”. Strano’s team have only released a limited amount of information about how this technique actually works, so there is still a great deal of anticipation as to whether the results will be repeatable.

If chloroplasts could be kept functional indefinitely outside of a plant, they could be used to create fuel cells that function similarly to algal biofuel farms, however would be far more convenient. Utilising the chloroplast’s ability to photosynthesise, early versions of this fuel cell would absorb sunlight and secrete maltose or glucose. According to Strano, “Sugar is a very dense way of storing energy. It stores about 20 times the energy in the same amount of space as a lithium battery.”

Bionic plants could also be used to alert people to the presence of certain chemicals. The same research team has already used nanotubes to make Arabidopsis plants become fluorescent when in contact with chemicals like nitric oxide. It is believed that a similar technique could be used to test for explosives or pollutants.

What else could nanotechnology have to offer the future of science and engineering?


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