This article was originally published on Thred Media.
Ever wondered what your salad is thinking at lunch time? Do you often wish it could communicate with you via the digital convenience of email? What do you mean, no?
Regardless of your personal thoughts on talking vegetables, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US have engineered spinach plants that can detect explosive material in soil and relay information back via email.
Okay, so technically it’s not the spinach itself that sends messages. You won’t be seeing individual plants rocking their own Hotmail account and smashing out passive aggressive reminders to colleagues on a keyboard.
What’s going on?
The roots of the spinach plant detect the presence of nitroaromatics in groundwater, a compound you usually find in explosives such as landmines. The carbon nanotubes in the plant leaves then emit a signal which is picked up by an infrared camera and sent back to a lab via those handy emails.
While it’s only been used to detect explosive materials so far, scientists reckon it could easily be repurposed to warn us about pollution and other changes in environmental conditions.
Early experimentation with plant nanobionic research has already shown we can use them to keep track of pollutants. Professor Michael Strano, the leader of this cabbage emailing project, previously altered how plants photosynthesized. They were able to detect nitric oxide, a pollutant caused by combustion.
Plants respond to a ton of information regarding their surroundings, making them ideal candidates for environmental conservation and monitoring – it’s just translating that information into tangible data that can be tricky.
What does this mean for climate change?
One clear benefit would be precise data on climate behaviors and a greater ability to predict what could fluctuate in terms of pollutant levels, temperatures, air quality, and so on.
Prof. Strano notes that "plants are very responsive," adding that they "know that there is going to be a drought long before we do." Understanding how plants react and respond to this information could offer a "wealth of information to access."
Aside from emails, spinach has also been found to make fuel cells more efficient. The spinach itself is converted into carbon nanosheets which help make metal-air batteries. And you thought this plant was just for eating?
Soon we could be powering our gadgets with the energy from spinach leaves. Maybe runner beans could even jump on a video call every now and then too? The future is now.
When you're just about to clock out for the day and you get an email marked 'URGENT' from spinach pic.twitter.com/CbCcqUDYs3— Ross Sayers (@Sayers33) February 2, 2021