Every strawberry has its delicious flavor, but could some strawberry plants have tiny little devices to help them produce many more sweet juicy strawberries?
Considering that all food comes directly or indirectly from plants, it is necessary to develop technologies which will understand and improve plants. Can nanotechnology, one of the most promising emerging technologies today, be of any help?
A key objective for sustainable agriculture is to breed plants with both high carbon gain and water-use efficiency. Namely, the key enzyme Rubisco, which is in charge of converting atmospheric carbon dioxide and water into organic molecules, is not very good at distinguishing the carbon dioxide molecule from the oxygen molecule and will use either of them. C3 plants, a group that includes most crop plants, slowed down the turnover rate of the Rubisco enzyme, allowing it to improve its selectivity. Consequently, it has become necessary to increase carbon dioxide assimilation in the vicinity of Rubisco enzyme in order to increase crop yield.
On the other hand, water limitation is a major global constraint for plant productivity, which is likely to be even more severe with climate change. Therefore, no matter how advanced an irrigation system is used, it cannot be efficient enough without improving the water use efficiency of the plant itself, which determines the amount of carbon gained per unit of water used by the plant. But how can one improve the biochemical capacity for carbon dioxide assimilation and water use efficiency of the plants?
There are possibilities to improve both by genetic manipulation. But, are there alternative technologies for plant optimization? The promising idea which we at BioSense pursue is to combine plant’s internal machinery with nanomaterials. Although the idea to engineer living plants with inserted nanomaterials is still quite abstract, BioSense researchers work on developing technologies alternative to genetic modification. Engineering plants with implemented nanodevices which will improve their photosynthetic mechanism and water use efficiency is a long term vision which requires the development of new biomaterials, thorough analysis of interaction between biomaterials and living plants, novel mechanisms that allow nanodevices to be delivered and localized within living plants and plant organelles, research in required mechanical and electrical properties, and many more.
Besides contributing to sustainable agriculture by engineering plants with high carbon gain and improved water-use efficiency, this approach can also turn living plants into live sensing platforms for various environmental pollutants, regulation of physiology, storage of energy. Generally, designing biomaterial-based nanoelectronic devices will provide many new opportunities to enhance, harness or regulate plants functions as well as introduce new ones.