Something you might’ve not expected to hear: scientists have successfully taught spinach – yes, spinach, as in the plants – to send emails.

Something you might’ve not expected to hear: scientists have successfully taught spinach – yes, spinach, as in the plant – to send emails.

More accurately, engineers at the renown Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have used nanotechnology to transform ordinary spinach plants into sensors that detect explosive materials in the ground, and then send warning emails out as they detect them.

By inserting carbon nanotubes in the leaves, the spinach plants can detect the presence of nitroaromatics (a compound commonly found in landmines and other explosives) in the surrounding ground water, and then wireless relay their findings back to scientists via signals sent to nearby infrared cameras that in turn trigger the email alerts.

This technology is part of a field of study called “plant nanobionics”, which revolve around inserting electronic components and systems into plant life – think of it like creating cyborg plants, if you will.

Professor Michael Strano – the individual leading the research – explained that plants naturally made very good analytical chemists.

“They have an extensive root network in the soil, are constantly sampling groundwater, and have a way to self-power the transport of that water up into the leaves,” he said. “This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier.”

A tool for all sorts of good.

Aside from detecting explosive materials, there are other avenues for such technology to be used, one of them being observing ecological changes and detecting the presence of pollutants in surroundings.

After all, earlier tests in the MIT team’s research involved using nanoparticles to turn plants into pollutant sensors. This was done by changing how the plants photosynthesized, which in turn allowed them to detect the pollutant nitric oxide – a by-product of combustion.

“Plants are very environmentally responsive,” said Strano. “They know that there is going to be a drought long before we do.”

“They can detect small changes in the properties of soil and water potential. If we tap into those chemical signalling pathways, there is a wealth of information to access.”

And in other tests, Strano and his team have also managed to create plants that can detect hydrogen peroxide, Trinitrotoluene (also known as TNT), the nerve gas sarin, and even dopamine.

The team is confident that such technology can be used in more varieties of common plants.

Initially using a common lab plant for tests, the team moved on to using regular spinach just to demonstrate the versatility of the technique.

And now they want to work on creating more sensors tasked for different purposes, such as understanding the inner workings of a plant, something that could help botanists improve the yield of plants such as the Madagascar periwinkle plant that produces compounds in cancer-treating drugs.

“These sensors give real-time information from the plant. It is almost like having the plant talk to us about the environment they are in,” said Min Hao Wong, an MIT graduate that started a company to further this technology. “In the case of precision agriculture, having such information can directly affect yield and margins.”

Originally published at Mashable