Scientists have developed spinach that can send emails

Believe it or not, scientists have engineered spinach plants that can send emails and help detect abnormalities in soil. It could be used to help tackle climate change in the future.

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 MIT in the US have engineered spinach plants that can detect explosive material in soil and relay information back via email. Yes, that’s right, email. Just don’t accidentally stick them in your junk folder.

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, though that would be a sight to behold.

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?

Obviously, one benefit would be precise data on climate behaviours and a greater ability to predict what could fluctuate in terms of pollutant levels, temperatures, air quality, etc.

Professor 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 give us 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 – and our runner beans may even jump on a Zoom call every now and then. The future is now.


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