Plant Nanobionics Augments Photosynthesis and Biochemical Sensing

Plants have many valuable functions: They provide food and fuel, release the oxygen that we breathe, and add beauty to our surroundings. Now, a team of MIT researchers, with collaborators at Cal Tech and Dumlupinar University in Turkey, wants to make plants even more useful by augmenting them with nanomaterials that could enhance their energy production and give them completely new functions, such as monitoring environmental pollutants. In a new Nature Materials paper, published online on March 16, 2014, the researchers report boosting plants' ability to capture light energy by 30 percent by embedding carbon nanotubes in the chloroplast, the plant organelle where photosynthesis takes place. Using another type of carbon nanotube, they also modified plants to detect the gas nitric oxide. Together, these represent the first steps in launching a scientific field the researchers have dubbed "plant nanobionics." "Plants are very attractive as a technology platform," says Dr. Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering and leader of the MIT research team. "They repair themselves, they're environmentally stable outside, they survive in harsh environments, and they provide their own power source and water distribution." Dr. Strano and the paper's lead author, postdoc and plant biologist Dr. Juan Pablo Giraldo, envision turning plants into self-powered, photonic devices such as detectors for explosives or chemical weapons. The researchers are also working on incorporating electronic devices into plants. "The potential is really endless," Dr. Strano says. The idea for nanobionic plants grew out of a project in Strano's lab to build self-repairing solar cells modeled on plant cells.
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