Researchers Developing 'Bionic Plants' to Detect Pollution, Explosives

A team used carbon nanotubes to help a plant collect more sunlight. Here's what that could mean for the future.

A researcher infuses the leaves of an Arabidopsis thaliana plant with nanoparticles.

A researcher infuses the leaves of an Arabidopsis thaliana plant with nanoparticles.

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Green thumbs, meet green technology.

A team of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says it’s on track to develop a bionic plant, potentially paving the way for using flowers, shrubs and other plants to detect explosives, chemical weapons, air pollution and more.

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“Plants are very attractive as a technology platform,” Michael Strano, an MIT chemical engineering professor who led the research team, said in a statement. “They repair themselves, they’re environmentally stable outside, they survive in harsh environments, and they provide their own power source and water distribution.”

Professor Michael Strano, left, and postdoc fellow Juan Pablo Giraldo say nanotechnology could be the key to developing bionic plants.
Professor Michael Strano, left, and postdoc fellow Juan Pablo Giraldo say nanotechnology could be the key to developing bionic plants.

The key is nanotechnology. The research team took chloroplasts, the part of a plant where photosynthesis occurs, and implanted them with tiny carbon nanotubes. The tubes then upped the flow of electrons – a critical part of the photosynthesis process – by as much 30 percent.

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It's still unclear how the extra electrons may influence photosynthesis, or even why more electrons were moving through the chloroplasts in the first place. 

One theory is that the nanotubes act essentially as "artificial antennae," which help the chloroplasts absorb "wavelengths of light not in their normal range, such as ultraviolet, green, and near-infrared,” a statement on the team’s findings said.

"More research is needed to clarify the mechanism," says Juan Pablo Giraldo, a biologist and one of the paper’s lead authors.

Nevertheless, researchers did manage to implant carbon nanotubes that detected nitric oxide, a pollutant, which suggests that bionic plants could ultimately be used as environmental monitors. In fact, Strano's lab already has built carbon nanotube sensors that detect hydrogen peroxide, sarin gas and the explosive TNT.

Researchers use a near-infrared microscope to read the output of carbon nanotube sensors embedded in an Arabidopsis thaliana plant.
Researchers use a near-infrared microscope to read the output of carbon nanotube sensors embedded in an Arabidopsis thaliana plant.

"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," Giraldo said in a statement.

As Strano described: “The potential is really endless.”

The findings were published Sunday in the journal Nature Materials. It was funded primarily by the Department of Energy.