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Written by Neha Karl

Plants are a gift of nature. They provide food to eat, release oxygen into the air we breathe, and make our world a whole lot greener. And soon, they could be a supercharged source of energy!

Pierre Vivant's sculpture, Traffic Light Tree in the Docklands, London

Tree – Pierre Vivant’s sculpture of a traffic-light tree in London.
Image: William Warby

Just as plants grow and develop, so does technology. The combination of these two fields has given rise to ‘nanobionics’. This exciting field could lead to pollution-free machines and a better understanding of our environment.

Plants make their own food by photosynthesis, a process which takes place in tiny sub-units of cells called ‘chloroplasts’. A team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology inserted nanoparticles into the chloroplasts of plants, boosting their ability to capture light energy. As well as supercharging photsosynthesis, the researchers discovered a second superpower – the treated plants glowed when exposed to infrared light!

The team also noticed that the glow stopped when the plant was exposed to nitric oxide – a pollutant commonly produced by cars. The plants acted as chemical sensors, the glow fading in response to the pollutant.

Professor Michael Strano, lead researcher of the study, foresees wide application of bionic plants in our society. He hopes that nanoparticle technology will enable plants to produce energy for other functions – limited only by our imagination.

While there is still more research to be done, our future looks brighter, safer and greener. It won’t be long before bionic plants are lighting up our streets and monitoring our environment!

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