MIT create plant-based sensors that monitor arsenic levels and soil

Researchers from the Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, the research arm of MIT in Singapore, have created a new type of plant sensor. The sensor is a nanobionic optical sensor that can detect and monitor arsenic toxicity levels underground in real-time.Researchers say their development has significant advantages over the conventional method used to measure arsenic in the environment and can be important for environmental monitoring and agricultural applications for food safety. Arsenic is a contaminant in many common agricultural products like rice, vegetables, and tea leaves. Arsenic and arsenic compounds are a threat to humans and the ecosystem.

Long-term exposure to arsenic in humans has a range of adverse effects on the cardiovascular system and can cause diabetes, birth defects, skin lesions, and cancers. Arsenic is also harmful to plants leading to inhibited growth and crop losses. Arsenic levels in the soil can become elevated as a result of activities like mining and smelting.

The sensors developed by MIT exhibit changes in fluorescence intensity if arsenic is detected. The sensors can be embedded in plant tissue with no detrimental effect on the plant, providing a non-destructive way to monitor the internal dynamics of arsenic absorbed by the plants from the soil. Integrating optical sensors with living plants allows the conversion of plants into self-powered detectors of arsenic in their natural environment.

The process is a significant improvement from the current process that is both time and equipment-intensive for arsenic sampling. MIT points out that these plant-based nanosensors are the first of their kind and offer significant advantages over conventional arsenic measuring methods. The scientists believe their innovation will see wide use in agriculture and beyond. The sensors can be integrated into multiple plant species.