July 22 2017 by Ryan Deschner

It is common knowledge that spinach, or Spinacia oleracea, is a healthy part of the human diet, but now with the latest advances in nanotechnology it could also create a safer world. Researchers at The University of California Riverside and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed spinach plants embedded with single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs) which enable them to detect the presence of explosive chemicals.



By applying SWCNTs to the underside of spinach leaves via a process known as vascular infusion, spinach plants are transformed into nanosensors that emit a fluorescent signal if nitroaromatics such as picric acid (a common explosive) are detected. A combination of SWCNTs are incorporated into the plant to create the nanosensor. One SWCNT conjugated to the peptide Bombolitin II detects nitroaromatic molecules and emits an infrared fluorescent response, while another polyvinyl alcohol-functionalized SWCNT serves as a reference signal.

The vascular infusion process embeds the nanoparticles into the mesophyll of the leaves. In less than ten minutes, the natural perspiration of the plant draws water from contaminated soil to the mesophyll where sensing takes place. A laser source paired with a Raspberry Pi computer connected to an infrared camera serves as the detection system which “listens” to the infrared fluorescent signal emitted by the modified spinach plant.



This technology could turn a patch of wild-growing spinach into solar-powered detectors that listen for nearby landmines. Nano-enabled spinach could save the lives of huge numbers of civilians that inhabit war-torn regions often infested with tens of thousands of hidden landmines.  In addition, by seeding crops with nano-enabled plants, farmers could prevent the sale and consumption of food tainted by chemicals. Farmers in highly-polluted regions could better assess the overall crop health and plan for harvests or shortages. These examples demonstrate how the integration of nanoparticle-based technologies into simple things, like common the spinach plant, can serve important humanitarian purposes and potentially improve the quality of life around the world.


More InformationWong, Min Hao, et al. "Nitroaromatic detection and infrared communication from wild-type plants using plant nanobionics." Nature materials 16.2 (2017): 264-272. doi:10.1038/nmat4771


Explore More:

Ask an ExpertThese Nanoparticles will Dye Your Skin Blue