Scientists create spinach plants which can send emails when they detect explosives

Photo Taken In Portugal, Lisbon
Spinach plants can be used to detect explosives... or pollution. (Getty)

What with all the billions of spam emails out there, you might think the world has quite enough electronic mail - but now plants are getting in on the action.

Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have used nanotechnology to create spinach plants capable of sending emails when they detect explosives.

In the future, scientists believe, such plants could also offer warnings about pollution or even climate change.

The plants don’t use a mouse and keyboard, of course – instead carbon nanotubes within their leaves emit a fluorescent signal detectable by infrared cameras.

When the cameras detect a change, a simple device sends an email to researchers.

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The plants could offer valuable warning signals, the researchers believe.

The plants have been designed so the nanotubes emit a signal when they detect nitroaromatics in water – a compound often found in explosives.

The technology is not unique: it’s part of an emerging field where electronic components work within or with plants, known as ‘plant nanobionics’.

“This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier,” said Professor Michael Strano, who led the research.

The research was published in Nature Materials.

Strano said: “Plants are very 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.”

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Strano believes that similar systems could be used to offer warnings about pollution, Euronews Living reported.

In an early version of the experiment, Strano and his team used nanoparticles to make plants detect nitric oxide, a pollutant.

Strano said: “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 a wealth of information to access.”

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The researchers write, “Plant nanobionics aims to embed non-native functions to plants by interfacing them with specifically designed nanoparticles.

”Living spinach plants (Spinacia oleracea) can be engineered to serve as self-powered pre-concentrators and autosamplers of analytes in ambient groundwater and as infrared communication platforms that can send information to a smartphone.

“These results demonstrate the ability of living, wild-type plants to function as chemical monitors of groundwater and communication devices to external electronics at standoff distances.”

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