Nanosensor alerts when a plant is damaged

Hyperaxion Apr 16, 2020

Technology developed by MIT scientists can help improve agricultural production by identifying when plants are suffering damage.

A team of engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the United States, developed a nanosensor capable of detecting when plants are being damaged. The technology, revealed in an article on Nature Plants, could help scientists to develop new strategies to improve agricultural production.

Nanosensor alerts when a plant is damaged
Nanosensor developed by MIT can identify when plants are suffering damage. (Credit: Unsplash).

The team found that after a leaf is damaged, the plant releases a substance called hydrogen peroxide. This substance is released from the damaged area and spreads throughout the leaf, similar to the way neurons transmit electrical impulses in our brains. “Like dominos successively falling, this makes a wave that can propagate much further than a hydrogen peroxide puff alone would,” said Michael Strano, the research leader, in a statement to the press.

This peak of hydrogen peroxide stimulates plant cells to produce molecules called secondary metabolites, such as flavonoids or carotenoids, which help to repair the damage suffered. These “wounds” can be the result of several factors, such as infections and burns – and the new sensors are able to identify which type caused the hydrogen peroxide wave.

For some years now, MIT researchers have been exploring the engineering potential of nanobionic plants – plants that incorporate nanomaterials that give them new functions, such as emitting light or detecting water shortages. It was with this type of technology in mind that they decided to develop the new sensors.

According to Strano, he and his team used a method called lipid exchange envelope penetration (LEEP) to incorporate the sensors into the leaves of the vegetables. LEEP allows nanoparticles to penetrate plant cell membranes.

Among the tested plants are strawberry and lettuce.
Among the tested plants are strawberry and lettuce. (Credit: Unsplash).

The researchers tested the technology on several plant species, such as strawberries, spinach, arugula, lettuce, watercress, and sorrel, and found that different vegetables produce waves of hydrogen peroxide that are also diverse – all detectable. In addition, each species seems to respond differently to different forms of stress, which experts attribute to the response capacity of each plant.

“This waveform holds a lot of information for each species, and even more exciting is that the type of stress on a given plant is encoded in this waveform,” noted Strano. “You can look at the real time response that a plant experiences in almost any new environment.”

Another advantage of the instrument is its cost-benefit. The signals sent are detected by a small computer, similar in size to a credit card, and costs just US$35.

“Plants have a very sophisticated form of internal communication, which we can now observe for the first time,” commented Strano. “That means that in real-time, we can see a living plant’s response, communicating the specific type of stress that it’s experiencing.”

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