As Popular Mechanics noes in their article about the plant, these nanotubes were threaded into the cells of the plant’s leaves and embedded into the chloroplasts—the structure responsible for turning sunlight into energy. The nanotubes helped increase the plant’s absorption of light by 30 percent.
The key to this experiment was being able to direct the nanotubes through the pores on the plant’s leaves, and into the chloroplasts without causing damage to the cells. Almost by chance, the scientists came up with a brilliant scheme to accomplish that goal.
By painting each nanotube in a film of the plant’s DNA, they not only encouraged the chloroplasts to snatch up the nanotubes, but also allowed the nanotubes to merge through the chloroplasts’ fragile membranes without breaking them. It was almost like the plant was helping the scientists with their experiment.
“That was a remarkable and surprising finding,” said Juan Pablo Giraldo, a plant biologist with the team, to Nature Materials scientific journal. “At first we didn’t think they’d be able to penetrate. There was some proof that it was possible, but it seemed like a wild idea.”
While absorbing more sunlight is a great discovery, the scientists still aren’t sure what these bionic plants could lead to in the future. They’re sure that the plants are absorbing more ultraviolet light and green light, but they’re not sure how the sunlight is being transferred through the leaf itself.
There is also a question of the longevity of this experiment, since the plants are living beings. The real worry is that the plants might reject the nanotubes after some time and end up destroying themselves. “When a foreign object enters a biological cell,” says Ramaraja Ramasamy, who studies nanomaterials in biological systems at the University of Georgia, “it’s not treated lightly by the biological system.”
But the team of researchers are excited, as Popular Mechanics notes, about what can be done with these nanomaterials. They’ve already built a plant that uses similar carbon nanotubes that react to chemicals in the air, meaning the plant itself has been turned into a chemical detector. This concept could be modified to detect anything from explosives to poisonous gasses.
“Blending this world of inorganic and organic matter will allow us to combine the various qualities of different nanomaterials and with the enormous diversity plants,” Giraldo says. “The applications for this research are potentially endless. Who knows what we’ll find?”
Stories like these are a great example of the cool things that science and technology can come up with in today’s world. We’ve mentioned stories about 3D printers, prosthetic limbs, even stories about young inventors coming up with their own ideas on how to make the world a better place. Who knows what you might come up with if you are willing to put your mind to the test!
Photo credit: Popular Mechanics