Researchers have succeeded in boosting a plants’ ability to capture light energy by 30% by embedding carbon nanotubes in its chloroplast, where photosynthesis takes place.
Using another type of carbon nanotube, they also modified plants to detect the gas nitric oxide.
These represent the first steps in launching a new scientific field the researchers have called plant nanobionics.
“Right now, almost no-one is working in this emerging field,” says lead author biologist Dr Juan Pablo Giraldo of MIT.
“It’s an opportunity for people from plant biology and the chemical engineering nanotechnology community to work together in an area that has a large potential.”
According to a paper published in the journal Nature Materials, the idea for nanobionic plants grew out of a project to build self-repairing solar cells modeled on plant cells.
As a next step, the researchers wanted to try enhancing the photosynthetic function of chloroplasts isolated from plants, for possible use in solar cells.
Michael Strano, Professor of Chemical Engineering and leader of the MIT research team, and 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.
“Plants are very attractive as a technology platform,” says Professor Strano.
“They repair themselves, they’re environmentally stable outside, they survive in harsh environments, and they provide their own power source and water distribution.”
By adapting the sensors to different targets, the researchers hope to develop plants that could be used to monitor environmental pollution, pesticides, fungal infections, or exposure to bacterial toxins.