60-Second Science

Implants Could Produce Botanical Steve Austins

Inserted specialized carbon nanotubes could allow plants to harvest more energy from the sun or identify the presence of pollutants or dangerous substances. Cynthia Graber reports.  


We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic" plant!

Engineered bionic plants that harvest even more energy from the sun, or detect pollutants or explosives, could become a reality. That’s according to a study in the journal Nature Materials. [Juan Pablo Giraldo et al, Plant nanobionics approach to augment photosynthesis and biochemical sensing]

M.I.T. researchers say that plants are a great technology platform: they can survive harsh weather and they are their own energy factories.

So the team turned to improving plants’ capabilities.

They inserted carbon nanotubes into the plants’ chloroplasts, the site of photosynthesis. The tubes capture wavelengths of light that plants usually don’t absorb, such as ultraviolet and green.

Living plants with nanotube-enhanced chloroplasts showed a 30 percent increase in electron flow, a key aspect of photosynthesis. No word yet on any subsequent increase in actual sugar production.  

The researchers turned plants into sensors by embedding carbon nanotubes that were engineered to fluoresce in response to nitric oxide, a pollutant from combustion. They’ve also created nanotubes that can detect chemicals including TNT and the nerve gas sarin. Pollution, pesticides and explosives could someday be monitored via bionic botanicals.

“Better. Stronger. Faster.”

Well, maybe not faster.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

[Scientific American is a member of Nature Publishing Group.]

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