Scientists Teach Spinach to Send Emails

  • It tastes great, warns us about environmental issues, and powers cell phones. Is there anything spinach can’t do?

Animals can be surprisingly smart. Mammals, birds, octopuses, and even insects have wowed people with some impressing feats of intelligence.

But nobody would ever claim that plants are particularly intelligent forms of life. Or so we thought, until scientist taught spinach how to send emails.

You read that right. Engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have equipped spinach with the ability to fire off emails.

Granted, saying that the spinach plant itself is sending the email is a bit of an exaggeration. In reality, the plant is hooked to a monitoring device that fires off an email when certain conditions are fulfilled.

But still, it’s groundbreaking in the sense that a crop can now communicate with a farmer.

“This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier,” the spinach study’s lead author, professor Mark Strano told Euronews.

So, spinach – or any other vegetables for that matter – won’t be filling your inbox with spam any time soon. But farmers and environmentalists could benefit from having their plants talk to them.

But how does spinach email actually work? Let’s find out.

You’ve got mail: “Dude, would it kill you to water us?”

You Will Be Spinach-imilated

The spinach study is part of a field of research called plant nanobionics. It sounds like something from a B-class science fiction movie, but it’s a real field of study.

Plant nanobionics involves the research and engineering of electronic systems and components that can be fitted into plants. Essentially, the scientists are empowering plants with new abilities – by turning them into cyborgs.

In this case, though, Strano and his team didn’t exactly turn spinach into the Borg. All they did was fit the plant with an infrared camera.

When a spinach’s roots detect a compound called nanoaromatics in groundwater, the plant’s leaves start emitting a specific signal. The camera picks up the signal and sends an email to warn the recipient about potential explosives.

Oh yeah, those nanoaromatics. They’re an explosive substance used in landmines, among other delightful implements of destruction.

So, the researchers managed to turn a spinach plant into a biological mine detector. Suppose that’ll come in handy somewhere.

Environmental Watchdogs

Although Strano carried out the initial experiments on explosives, his goal isn’t turning leafy vegetables into military tools. The bigger benefit of the project, according to the researchers, could come from monitoring environmental changes.

“Plants are 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,” Strano explained.

He added that plants were ideally positioned to monitor their environment. Fitted with the research team’s technology, they could warn research and environmental organizations about pollution and other problems before their effects become clear in more negative ways.

For example, Strano has managed to incorporate nanoparticles into plants to change the ways they photosynthesize. This way, he was able to get the plants to detect nitric oxide, which is a pollutant created by combustion.

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

“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,” he added.

Just imagine how many issues farmers could avoid if their plants informed them whenever something was wrong. Or if cities could monitor air pollution through plants in their parks.

These scientists might just be onto something.

She Used to Call Me on My Spinach Phone

But there’s more to spinach than just sending emails. Another research team from the American University is looking into the turning the nutritious leafy greens into power cells.

Shouzhong Zou, the team’s lead scientist, explained that spinach could be turned into carbon nanosheets. They could act as catalysts that could make metal-air batteries and fuel cells more efficient.

Metal-air batteries could offer a more energy-efficient alternative to replace traditional lithium-ion batteries. That is, your future smartphone battery could include some spinach in it.

“This work suggests that sustainable catalysts can be made for an oxygen reduction reaction from natural resources,” Zou said.

Spinach is a particularly attractive option, explained Zou, since its high iron and nitrogen content makes it a great catalyst. So spinach is not only healthy, it’s energy-efficient.

“The method we tested can produce highly active, carbon-based catalysts from spinach, which is a renewable biomass. In fact, we believe it outperforms commercial platinum catalysts in both activity and stability,” Zou concluded.

Imagine that. A spinach-powered future. What a time to be alive.

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