Tag Archives: Michael McAlpine

Spinach and plant nanobionics

Who knew that spinach leaves could be turned into electronic devices? The answer is: engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to an Oct. 31, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Spinach is no longer just a superfood: By embedding leaves with carbon nanotubes, MIT engineers have transformed spinach plants into sensors that can detect explosives and wirelessly relay that information to a handheld device similar to a smartphone.

This is one of the first demonstrations of engineering electronic systems into plants, an approach that the researchers call “plant nanobionics.”

An Oct. 31, 2016 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research further (Note: Links have been removed),

“The goal of plant nanobionics is to introduce nanoparticles into the plant to give it non-native functions,” says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the leader of the research team.

In this case, the plants were designed to detect chemical compounds known as nitroaromatics, which are often used in landmines and other explosives. When one of these chemicals is present in the groundwater sampled naturally by the plant, carbon nanotubes embedded in the plant leaves emit a fluorescent signal that can be read with an infrared camera. The camera can be attached to a small computer similar to a smartphone, which then sends an email to the user.

“This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier,” says Strano, who believes plant power could also be harnessed to warn of pollutants and environmental conditions such as drought.

Strano is the senior author of a paper describing the nanobionic plants in the Oct. 31 [2016] issue of Nature Materials. The paper’s lead authors are Min Hao Wong, an MIT graduate student who has started a company called Plantea to further develop this technology, and Juan Pablo Giraldo, a former MIT postdoc who is now an assistant professor at the University of California at Riverside.

Environmental monitoring

Two years ago, in the first demonstration of plant nanobionics, Strano and former MIT postdoc Juan Pablo Giraldo used nanoparticles to enhance plants’ photosynthesis ability and to turn them into sensors for nitric oxide, a pollutant produced by combustion.

Plants are ideally suited for monitoring the environment because they already take in a lot of information from their surroundings, Strano says.

“Plants are very good analytical chemists,” he says. “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.”

Strano’s lab has previously developed carbon nanotubes that can be used as sensors to detect a wide range of molecules, including hydrogen peroxide, the explosive TNT, and the nerve gas sarin. When the target molecule binds to a polymer wrapped around the nanotube, it alters the tube’s fluorescence.

In the new study, the researchers embedded sensors for nitroaromatic compounds into the leaves of spinach plants. Using a technique called vascular infusion, which involves applying a solution of nanoparticles to the underside of the leaf, they placed the sensors into a leaf layer known as the mesophyll, which is where most photosynthesis takes place.

They also embedded carbon nanotubes that emit a constant fluorescent signal that serves as a reference. This allows the researchers to compare the two fluorescent signals, making it easier to determine if the explosive sensor has detected anything. If there are any explosive molecules in the groundwater, it takes about 10 minutes for the plant to draw them up into the leaves, where they encounter the detector.

To read the signal, the researchers shine a laser onto the leaf, prompting the nanotubes in the leaf to emit near-infrared fluorescent light. This can be detected with a small infrared camera connected to a Raspberry Pi, a $35 credit-card-sized computer similar to the computer inside a smartphone. The signal could also be detected with a smartphone by removing the infrared filter that most camera phones have, the researchers say.

“This setup could be replaced by a cell phone and the right kind of camera,” Strano says. “It’s just the infrared filter that would stop you from using your cell phone.”

Using this setup, the researchers can pick up a signal from about 1 meter away from the plant, and they are now working on increasing that distance.

Michael McAlpine, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota, says this approach holds great potential for engineering not only sensors but many other kinds of bionic plants that might receive radio signals or change color.

“When you have manmade materials infiltrated into a living organism, you can have plants do things that plants don’t ordinarily do,” says McAlpine, who was not involved in the research. “Once you start to think of living organisms like plants as biomaterials that can be combined with electronic materials, this is all possible.”

“A wealth of information”

In the 2014 plant nanobionics study, Strano’s lab worked with a common laboratory plant known as Arabidopsis thaliana. However, the researchers wanted to use common spinach plants for the latest study, to demonstrate the versatility of this technique. “You can apply these techniques with any living plant,” Strano says.

So far, the researchers have also engineered spinach plants that can detect dopamine, which influences plant root growth, and they are now working on additional sensors, including some that track the chemicals plants use to convey information within their own tissues.

“Plants are very environmentally responsive,” Strano says. “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 signaling pathways, there is a wealth of information to access.”

These sensors could also help botanists learn more about the inner workings of plants, monitor plant health, and maximize the yield of rare compounds synthesized by plants such as the Madagascar periwinkle, which produces drugs used to treat cancer.

“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,” Wong says. “In the case of precision agriculture, having such information can directly affect yield and margins.”

Once getting over the excitement, questions spring to mind. How could this be implemented? Is somebody  going to plant a field of spinach and then embed the leaves so they can detect landmines? How will anyone know where to plant the spinach? And on a different track, is this spinach edible? I suspect that if spinach can be successfully used as a sensor, it might not be for explosives but for pollution as the researchers suggest.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Nitroaromatic detection and infrared communication from wild-type plants using plant nanobionics by Min Hao Wong, Juan P. Giraldo, Seon-Yeong Kwak, Volodymyr B. Koman, Rosalie Sinclair, Tedrick Thomas Salim Lew, Gili Bisker, Pingwei Liu, & Michael S. Strano. Nature Materials (2016) doi:10.1038/nmat4771 Published online 31 October 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

The last posting here which featured Strano’s research is in an Aug. 25, 2015 piece about carbon nanotubes and medical sensors.

Tooth tattoos at Tufts University

In spring 2012, there was a fluttering in the blogosphere about tooth tattoos with the potential for monitoring dental health. As sometimes happens, I put off posting about the work until it seemed everyone else had written about it (e.g. Mar. 30, 2012 posting by Dexter Johnson for his Nanoclast blog on the IEEE website) and there was nothing left for me to say.  Happily, the researchers at Tufts University (where part of this research [Princeton University is also involved] is being pursued) have released more information in a Nov. 1, 2012 news article by David Levin,

The sensor, dubbed a “tooth tattoo,” was developed by the Princeton nanoscientist Michael McAlpine and Tufts bioengineers Fiorenzo Omenetto, David Kaplan and Hu Tao. The team first published their research last spring in the journal Nature Communications.

The sensor is relatively simple in its construction, says McAlpine. It’s made up of just three layers: a sheet of thin gold foil electrodes, an atom-thick layer of graphite known as graphene and a layer of specially engineered peptides, chemical structures that “sense” bacteria by binding to parts of their cell membranes.

“We created a new type of peptide that can serve as an intermediary between bacteria and the sensor,” says McAlpine. “At one end is a molecule that can bond with the graphene, and at the other is a molecule that bonds with bacteria,” allowing the sensor to register the presence of bacteria, he says.

Because the layers of the device are so thin and fragile, they need to be mounted atop a tough but flexible backing in order to transfer them to a tooth. The ideal foundation, McAlpine says, turns out to be silk—a substance with which Kaplan and Omenetto have been working for years.

By manipulating the proteins that make up a single strand of silk, it’s possible to create silk structures in just about any shape, says Omenetto, a professor of biomedical engineering at Tufts. Since 2005, he’s created dozens of different structures out of silk, from optical lenses to orthopedic implants. Silk is “kind of like plastic, in that we can make [it] do almost anything,” he says. “We have a lot of control over the material. It can be rigid. It can be flexible. We can make it dissolve in water, stay solid, become a gel—whatever we need.”

Omenetto, Kaplan and Tao created a thin, water-soluble silk backing for McAlpine’s bacterial sensor—a film that’s strong enough to hold the sensor components in place, but soft and pliable enough to wrap easily around the irregular contours of a tooth.

To apply the sensor, McAlpine says, you need only to wet the surface of the entire assembly—silk, sensor and all—and then press it onto the tooth. Once there, the silk backing will dissolve within 15 or 20 minutes, leaving behind the sensor, a rectangle of interwoven gold and black electrodes about half the size of a postage stamp and about as thick as a sheet of paper. The advantage of being attached directly to a tooth means that the sensor is in direct contact with bacteria in the mouth—an ideal way to monitor oral health.

Because the sensor doesn’t carry any onboard batteries, it must be both read and powered simultaneously through a built-in antenna. Using a custom-made handheld device about the size of a TV remote, McAlpine’s team can “ping” that antenna with radio waves, causing it to resonate electronically and send back information that the device then uses to determine if bacteria are present.

The sensor (A), attached to a tooth (B) and activated by radio signals (C), binds with certain bacteria (D). Illustration: Manu Mannoor/Nature Communications (downloaded from http://now.tufts.edu/articles/tooth-tattoo)

In addition to its potential for  monitoring dental health, the tooth tattoo could replace some of the more invasive health monitoring techniques (e.g., drawing blood), from the Tufts University article,

In addition to monitoring oral health, Kugel [Gerard Kugel, Tufts professor of prosthodontics and operative dentistry and associate dean for research at Tufts School of Dental Medicine] believes the tooth tattoo might be useful for monitoring a patient’s overall health. Biological markers for many diseases—from stomach ulcers to AIDS—appear in human saliva, he says. So if a sensor could be modified to react to those markers, it potentially could help dentists identify problems early on and refer patients to a physician before a condition becomes serious.

“The mouth is a window to the rest of the body,” Kugel says. “You can spot a lot of potential health problems through saliva, and it’s a much less invasive way to do diagnostic tests than drawing blood.”

Before monitoring of any type can take place, there is at least one major hurdle still be overcome. Humans are quite sensitive to objects being placed in their mouths. According to one of the researchers, we can sense objects that are 50 to 60 microns wide, about the thickness piece of paper, and that may be too uncomfortable to bear.

H/T Nov. 9, 2012 news item on Nanowerk for pointing me towards the latest information about these tooth tattoos.