Experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have used a nanobionic approach to design sensors capable of monitoring plant health in real time. The sensors will ultimately improve crop yields by providing valuable insight into how plants respond to various types of stress.
The sensors are designed to pick up on plant distress by intercepting the hydrogen peroxide signals that plants use to communicate.
Once it is embedded in a plant’s leaves, the nanosensor interprets the hydrogen peroxide signals to determine the specific source of plant stress, such as infection, injury, or heat damage. The data can be monitored remotely from a smartphone or computer.
These real-time insights could make it easier than ever before to maximize crop yields.
“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,” said study senior author Professor Michael Strano.
The technology will have a range of beneficial applications, such as screening different plant species to evaluate their response to pathogens or their ability to resist damage from various stressors. The system may also be used to investigate whether plants are compatible with their growing environment.
“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,” explained 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 new technology can be applied to any plant. The researchers have already demonstrated the accuracy of their system in comparing eight different plant species including spinach, strawberry plants, and arugula.
To integrate the sensors into plant leaves, the research team used a technique called lipid exchange envelope penetration (LEEP), a method that had been previously developed in Professor Strano’s lab.
The study is published in the journal Nature Plants.
By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer