Behold, Spinach Can Send E-mails & Predict Climate Change

by Kareena Dodeja
Behold, Spinach Can Send E-mails & Predict Climate Change

February 3, 2021

As children, we never really liked eating our greens. Even after attempts at positive reinforcements through cartoons, we never really liked eating spinach and broccoli. And for a lot of us, Popeye continues to be synonymous with spinach. But who would have thought that Popeye's super-food - Spinach - can send e-mails as well?

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineers have made a spinach plant that can send an e-mail to a smartphone by nitroaromatics- chemical compounds found in certain types of explosives. The plants can detect the combination sent to the leaves, where nanotube sensors then trigger a signal. This was possible using the spinach roots; they are engineered to send e-mails when they detect the compounds.

Too complex? Well, let’s simplify it then.

Spinach can now warn us about explosives.

How On Earth Can Spinach Send E-mails?

Well, the process is possible because of nanotechnology or ‘plant nano bionics’. The MIT research is based on ‘plant nano bionics’ which aims to find native-functions in plants by interfacing them with designed nanoparticles. This is only a part of the broader research of engineering electronic components into plants by scientists. This gives plants powers and new abilities and opens up more spectrums for plant-human communication.

Experimental Process for Spinach – E-mail Enigma

The MIT scientists employed a vascular infusion technique to place the two sets of nano-carbon tubes into the roots of the plant’s leaves within a layer known as mesophyll- where photosynthesis takes place. One set of nanotubes sends out a fluorescent signal. This gives the computer monitoring a baseline. The other tube set sends out an alert when it has encountered the target molecule.

Plant Bionics- the science of Super powered plants.

This process differentiates the plant’s normal state from the chemical state for the computer. When the explosive compound is found at its roots, it takes around 10 minutes for the leaves to receive the message. When this is encountered, the detection takes place, and the nanotubes send out a fluorescent signal picked up by an infrared camera.

The camera relays the message to the attached computer, which is about the size of a smartphone that sends an e-mail alert. This system works up to only a meter away. Hence, the researchers are working on increasing the range.

Michael Strano is a professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. He led the research team that helped make the world’s first cybernetic spinach plant. His research helped to reduce the plant-human communication barrier. The sensors from the plant give out real-time information such as what kind of environment they are in. Due to the crazy amount of data plants in the surroundings, this is entirely possible to monitor the conditions.

Michael Strano giving speech about Plant Bionics.

Can Spinach Warn Us About Climate Change?

Researchers believed that living plants could be used to detect any chemicals. Strano had already attempted this experiment two years but to no avail could do it. At that time, he injected the plants with nano bionics to help improve photosynthesis. The plants picked up TNT, sarin nerve gas, and even hydrogen peroxide, a pollutant.

The house plants could help detect oxygen levels, temperature, humidity, and pollutants time-to-time, which send information directly to the smartphone. The researchers transformed spinach into sensors that are capable of detecting explosive materials. The presence of nitroaromatics in groundwater is a compound that is found in explosives. The carbon nanotubes within the plant leaves give out signals. These signals relay the information to the scientists.

A scientist injecting a plant with nanoparticles.

Spinach - the Indicator

The researchers believe that this could help warn us about pollution and other harmful environmental conditions. The data in the plants are absorbed from their surroundings and monitor ecological changes. They found that spinach is converted into carbon nanosheets, which can help make metal-air batteries. The batteries are energy efficient when compared to lithium-ion batteries.

According to News 18, the researchers believe that the plants can detect the drought before we do. They can even see the slightest changes in the properties of soil and water. If the signal is broadened, the wealth of information could be accessed.

Why Is Spinach Possessed With These Qualities?

Spinach was chosen because of the abundance of iron and nitrogen present in it, essential in compounds. The researchers washed, juiced, and ground the spinach into a dusty powder turning it from edible form to nano-sheets for this process. They found that it outperformed commercial catalysts.

After hearing this, I don’t think we can ever eat palak paneer the same way.

It is kind of mind-boggling to think that scientists could engineer spinach to send mails. Can this get weirder? Will potatoes start texting us soon? Popeye, the sailor, wouldn’t have never thought that the leafy greens he likes can send mail him too.


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