I've got to program my geranium...

MIT researchers use a near-infrared microscope to read the output of carbon-nanotube sensors embedded in an Arabidopsis thaliana plant. Credit: Bryce Vickmark

Ever heard of plant nanobionics? Neither had I. I stumbled on it reading a report by MIT Technology Review on Bionic Plants.

A team of researchers at MIT have managed to boost the capability to harvest light and producing electrons by 30% by embedding carbon nanotube in the chloroplasts. Additionally, they have shown how it is possibile to embed in a plant leaf carbon nanotube specifically made to detect a certain molecule, like nitric oxide gas.

The first challenge they had to overcome was to find a way to implant carbon nanotube inside the chloroplasts without disrupting/killing them. They resorted to encapsulation of nanotubes in polyacrylic acid, forming a tiny package that can enter through the stroma (the minuscole opening in the leaf used to let carbon dioxide in and oxygen out). 
First they tried this out on chloroplast that have been removed form the leaf, but this did work only for a few minutes. The reason is that the photosyntheses creation of oxygen disrupts the chloroplast that needs to be repaired but this happens only when it is in the leaf cells. To avoid this problem they inserted along with the nanotube also some cerium oxide nano particles, nanocera, that stop the formation of free radicals (the one with oxygen).

Then they tried the insertion in the leaf and were able to show the same increase in production of electrons, 30% more than what a normal leaf can produce. What it is not clear, so far, is how this affects the production of glucose ...

They are also looking at the possibility of embedding circuits in the leaf to augment its performance and transform it into a variety of sensors.

It is a brand new area of research that according to the researchers is very promising since plants are autonomous in finding the energy they need and in absorbing nutrients from the ground. Augmented plant would become very useful to mankind, as they have become through selection over millennia.

Hence, you might expect to get some of these augmented plants on your porch to detect a variety of conditions. And if you happen to need something different you will need to go to your geranium and do a bit of programming!

Author - Roberto Saracco

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