A team of chemical engineers and biochemists has managed to change how plants work. Well, to be exact, they have made plants work better by embedding carbon nanotubes into the plants' leaves so that they absorb more light. Put simply, they have created bionic plants.
The technique is not quite perfect. "We envisioned them as new hybrid biomaterials for solar energy harnessing, self-repairing materials [and] chemical detectors of pollutants, pesticides, [and] fungal and bacterial infections," said MIT chemical engineer Juan Pablo Giraldo.
The decision to use carbon nanotubes, which are just sheets of graphene rolled into straw-like shapes, makes perfect sense. Graphene can absorb sunlight and convert it into electron flow. Indeed, the photosynthesis rates in the plants injected with the nanotubes were three times higher than those without.
The "detector" bit of the equation also worked. The scientists found that the carbon nanotubes worked like sensors and would cease to glow under infrared light if nitric oxide, a common pollutant, were present. (See above.) Giraldo suggested that the bionic plants could be used as "biochemical detectors for monitoring environmental conditions in cities, crop fields, airports or high-security facilities."
Using plants as pollution detecting sensors seems kind of dangerous for the plants, but, for the sake of the experiment, they survived just fine. It's unclear how the embedding nanotubes will fare in the long run.
Just imagine the possibilities. Bionic plants with bodies? Why don't these guys use those supercharged photosynthesis abilities to stand up and walk around and shoot laser guns? [Nature Materials via Scientific American]