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Scientists have taught spinach to detect explosives, send emails

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This may seem straight out of the famous animation show named the ‘The Popeye Show’ but scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States have reportedly managed to engineer spinach plants making them capable of sending emails.

Spinach to detect explosive materials


According to reports, engineers at MIT have used nanotechnology to transform spinach into sensors capable of detecting explosive materials. The spinach plants can transmit the information back to scientists wirelessly. Whenever the presence of nitroaromatics, a compound often found in explosives like landmines, is detected by the spinach roots in the groundwater, the carbon nanotubes within the leaves of the plant emit a signal. This signal is then read by an infrared camera that sends an email alert to the scientists.

Professor Michael Strano, who led the research, told that plants are good analytical chemists.” They have an extensive root network in the soil, are constantly sampling groundwater and have a way to self-power the transport of that water up into the leaves”, said Professor Strano. The experiment is reportedly part of wider research involving engineering electronic components and systems into plants. The technology is called ‘plant nanobionics’ which is a process of giving plants new abilities. “This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier”, he added.

The purpose of the experiment was to detect explosives. However, scientists, including Strano, believe that the experiment could be used to alert researchers about pollution and other environmental conditions. Plants are said to be ideally suited to monitor ecological changes because of the large amount of data that they absorb from their surroundings. Professor Strano reportedly used nanoparticles to make plants into sensors for pollutants in the initial phases of the research. By changing the process of photosynthesis in the plants, Professor Strano made them capable of detecting nitric oxide, a pollutant caused by combustion.

According to Professor Strano, “Plants are very environmentally responsive. They know that there is going to be a drought long before we do. They can detect small changes in the properties of soil and water potential. If we tap into those chemical signalling pathways, there is wealth of information to access”.

Spinach can help make metal-air batteries

In addition to this, scientists have reportedly found that when spinach is converted into carbon nanosheets, it can function as a catalyst to help make metal-air batteries and fuel more efficient. Professor Shouzhong Zou, who led the research paper, said, “This work suggests that sustainable catalysts can be made for an oxygen reduction reaction from natural resources”. Metal-air batteries have more efficiency as compared to lithium-ion batteries that are commonly found in commercial products like smartphones. “The method we tested can produce highly active, carbob-based catalysts from spinach, which is a renewable biomass. In fact, we believe it outperforms commercial platinum catalysts in both activity and stability”, said Professor Zou.

The reason behind selecting spinach was that it has plenty of iron and nitrogen which are important elements in compounds that act as catalysts. In order make spinach suitable for the process, researchers turned it into nanosheets.