Engineers Crack the Code of Communicating with Plants

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for ODP

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

You’ve probably heard that plants can communicate with each other, or that they grow stronger if you sing to them, but engineers at MIT are teaching plants some new skills and they’re learning a lot. Through a technology called “plant nanobiotics,” engineers have placed electronic components into spinach plants that monitor water, plant, and soil health, and transmit information back to the engineers in real-time.

Why This Matters: This kind of technology could be crucial for data collection in the fight against climate change. Plants collect information about the earth every day: how much sunlight they’re getting, how much water is in the soil, and what kind of compounds are in that water. “Plants are very good analytical chemists,” explained MIT Professor Michael Strano. These nanotubes can detect changes in water composition, allowing scientists to know if the land contains polluting chemicals.

  • For example, a nanotube could sense high levels of nitrates, and help predict whether runoff from the region could trigger algal blooms nearby.
  • The technology could also be crucial in monitoring droughts, which are currently plaguing communities across the globe, including the Western U.S. which experts believe may never see adequate rainfall again.

“Plants are very environmentally responsive,” explained Strano. “They know that there is going to be a drought long before we do. They can detect small changes in the properties of soil and water potential. If we tap into those chemical signaling pathways, there is a wealth of information to access.”

Why Spinach?

Not only does spinach help old-timey pirates gain instant super strength, but engineers have also found it holds great potential for the creation of more energy-efficient batteries. Spinach has an abundance of iron and nitrogen, which can act as catalysts in fuel cells. Experts even found that spinach-based catalysts outperformed platinum in multiple categories.

What else can Plant Nanobiotics do?

As global temperatures rise, heat stress on plants is making it harder to raise crops and feed communities. Without a solution, famines will become as common as droughts, but some engineers have found a way to use nano-particles to increase heat-tolerance in plants. Bob Tilton, a researcher with Carnegie Mellon’s Civil and Chemical Engineering Department, explains, “Prolonged high temperatures can induce stress in crop plants. Our materials are designed so they can bind heat stress relief agents and release them inside the plant on demand when it becomes very hot.”

This technology could be revolutionary for developing nations and communities who grow much of their own food and will be among the first to see the catastrophic consequences of climate change.  


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