Feb 6, 2021 - Technology

Nanotechnology allows chemical signals from spinach to send emails

A photo of spinach.
Photo: DeAgostini/Getty Images

Researchers at MIT have devised a way to allow chemical signals from spinach plants to transmit an email.

Why it matters: The system could help provide an early warning system for explosives or pollution, but really, we just want to know what the spinach are thinking.

How it works: In a study published this week in Nature Materials, researchers engineered the roots of spinach plants to contain microscopic nanosensors that are capable of detecting nitroaromatics — chemicals that are often found in explosives and man-made industrial chemicals.

  • When the nanosensors detect those compounds, they can send a signal to an infrared camera, which can shoot out an email alert.

What they're saying: "This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier,” Michael Strano, a chemical engineer at MIT and a c0-author of the paper, told Euro News.

Our thought bubble: It's not so much that the plants are communicating with us, as that nanotechnology allows us to transform these plants into a kind of living computer.

  • Spinach cyborgs, if you will.
  • DARPA — the Defense Department's advanced research wing — has an entire program dedicated to exploring how plants could be engineered to detect threats like pathogens and chemicals in the environment.

The bottom line: Whatever happens next in our conversation with plants, I hope it has a better ending than Mark Wahlberg's attempt to talk to a tree in "The Happening."

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