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Nano-Sensors for Real-Time Plant Health Monitoring

Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Singapore MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore and Temasek Life Science Laboratory (TLL) have develop a new nanobionic approach to study plants.

The research team has developed a way to study and track the internal communication of living plants using carbon nanotube sensors that can be embedded in plant leaves.

This novel nanobionic approach is described in a paper published in the online scientific journal Nature Plants, titled “Real-time Detection of Wound-Induced H2O2 Signalling Waves with Optical Nanosensors”. The sensors were able to intercept the hydrogen peroxide signals that plants use to communicate internally. This signal is then displayed on remote electronic devices such as mobile phones, allowing agricultural scientists to remotely keep track of plant health in real-time.

“Plants have a very sophisticated form of internal communication, which we can now observe for the first time. That means that in real time, we can see a living plant’s response, communicating the specific type of stress that it’s experiencing,” says Michael Strano, co-lead Principal Investigator at Disruptive & Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP), an Interdisciplinary Research Group under SMART. Professor Strano, who is the senior author of the paper, is also a Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT.

The sensors can report on plants’ signalling waves to reveal how they respond to stresses such as injury, infection, heat and light damage, providing valuable real-time insights for engineering plants to maximise crop yield.

With this technology, the data extracted can fill knowledge gaps for a range of agricultural applications. These include screening of stress responses of different plant species. It could also be used for studying the ability of plants to adapt to different growing conditions in urban farms.

“Plants that grow at high density are prone to shade avoidance, where they divert resources into growing taller, instead of putting energy into producing crops, lowering overall crop yield,” says Professor Strano. “Our sensor allows us to intercept that stress signal and to understand exactly the conditions and the mechanism that are happening upstream and downstream in the plant that gives rise to the shade avoidance, thus leading to fuller crops.”

The research was funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF) Singapore, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), and the U.S. Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellowship Program.

The team used a method called lipid exchange envelope penetration (LEEP), developed previously by Professor Strano’s lab, to incorporate the sensors into plant leaves.

From the study it showed that the release of hydrogen peroxide triggers calcium release among adjacent plant cells, stimulating them to release more hydrogen peroxide and creating a wave of distress signals along the leaf. This stimulates the plants to produce secondary metabolites to help repair damage, these metabolites are also often the source of flavours in edible plants. [APBN]