A group of scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a system aimed at increasing the energy yield of plants through the use of nanomaterials. Using a similar system, they also hope to be able to assign plants the novel function of chemical detection, which could be used to sense explosives amongst other things. This new field of research has been entitled plant nanobionics, and it is hoped these findings will precipitate a wave of research into this exciting new area.
In a paper released in Nature Materials yesterday, a team led by Michael Strano were able to improve a plants' ability to capture light energy by 30%. Alongside this, they were able to increase the photosynthetic ability of chloroplasts by almost 50%
In a press-release, Strano said "Plants are a very attractive technology platform. They repair themselves, they're environmentally stable outside, they survive in harsh environments, and they provide their own power source and water distribution." Strano's lab turned to chloroplasts during a project where they hoped to be able to isolate these organelles and use them in solar cells.
Prior to this study, chloroplasts could not be used when isolated from the plant because harmful molecules called oxygen radicals eventually start to damage the components of the chloroplast. Normally, the plant would prevent these radicals from causing such damage. In an attempt to avoid this situation, the group implanted a type of nanoparticle called nanoceria into the chloroplasts; these mopped up the reactive molecules that were responsible for the damage. They did this using a technique called lipid exchange envelope penetration, which involves coating the nanoceria with a highly charged molecule, allowing the passage through the fatty chloroplast membrane.
Next, the team wanted to increase the amount of sunlight that the chloroplasts can use to make energy. They did this by using the same technique just described, but instead inserted semiconducting carbon nanotubes, which actually increased photosynthetic activity by almost 50%. This was achieved by the nanotubes broadening the wavelength of light that the chloroplasts can capture. To take this research further, the group started using the whole organism as oppose to just the chloroplasts. Infusion of nanoparticles into the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana through little pores present on the underside of the leaf amazingly managed to enhance the flow of electrons during photosynthesis by 30%. However, it has not yet been elucidated whether this actually increases sugar production.
Using these carbon nanotubes, the researchers hope to progress their work by converting plants into chemical sensors that can detect and monitor pollution levels and bacterial/fungal infection. Hopefully, this is just the beginning to a very fruitful field.