We would be forgiven for thinking that evolution, combined with selective breeding, has made crop growth as effective as it can be. But it would seem that mother-nature has missed a trick here. Scientists have recently succeeded in fusing nanotechnology with chloroplasts. These tiny structures inside plant cells carry out photosynthesis, using energy from sunlight to combine carbon dioxide with water to produce sugar.
Initial research was focussed upon survival of chloroplasts outside of the plant in an effort to make sugar. If removed from the plant, chloroplasts are ‘attacked’ by chemicals known as free radicals and degrade in just 4 hours. However, the team made use of nanoceria, which takes up the free radicals and stops this attack. By combining with carbon nanotubes, it became possible to put the nanoceria into leaves, but not the chloroplasts. However, simply coating the nanoceria-nanotube ‘nanomachine’ with charged molecules enabled absorption through the chloroplasts fatty shell. This extended the survival time by 50% but also showed evidence of increased electron movement – suggesting they might increase photosynthesis!
This result is fascinating. Not only is the ability of the plant to photosynthesise increased, enhanced by the nanotechnology; but the bionic material that results is able to grow and repair itself using sunlight and little else. Minimal detail has been revealed by the team of scientists about the mechanisms at work here, but the potential is incredibly exciting. Imagine an object or even a building that could fix and power itself! Suggestions also include a solution to the world’s fuel crisis. Though these possibilities are a long way off, the team’s vision is to ‘use plants as a platform for technology’. Reactions from scientists have been varied, with some desperate for more scientific justification, while others are excited about the possibilities the new technologies could offer.