No, it’s not April 1st, this is really happening. Scientists have taught spinach (yes, green, leafy spinach) to send emails.

First of all, we had Elon Musk saying a monkey can control a computer game with its mind. Now, scientists are trying to get spinach to do our admin. It’s like we want to make ourselves useless.

However, the spinach isn’t sending a “hope you’re well” email just yet. Instead, it’s communicating with engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

So how is it happening? It’s been done using nanotechnology, and scientists are transforming the plants into sensors. Then, the idea is that they can relay information about explosive materials back to us via email.

A study has been published in Nature Materials. ‘Here, we demonstrate that living spinach plants can be engineered to serve as self-powered pre-concentrators and autosamplers of analytes in ambient groundwater and as infrared communication platforms that can send information to a smartphone.’

Quite. Why not?

This area of tech is called ‘plant nanobionics’, which means scientists are constantly looking into ways to use plants for new purposes.  For the spinach,  it’s using their chemistry.

Plants As Chemists

The scientist who led the research is Professor Michael Strano. He told euronews: ‘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.’

Then, he adds: ‘This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier.’

Euronews explained the tech as: “When the spinach roots detect the presence of nitroaromatics in groundwater, a compound often found in explosives like landmines, the carbon nanotubes within the plant leaves emit a signal. This signal is then read by an infrared camera, sending an email alert to the scientists.”

The initial research was intended to detect explosives. However, the team now believes spinach plants could be used to warn us about climate change and other environmental issues.

Strano explains: ‘Plants are very environmentally responsive. They know that there is going to be a drought long before we do. They can detect small changes in the properties of soil and water potential. If we tap into those chemical signalling pathways, there is a wealth of information to access.’

Professor Shouzhong Zou says: ‘This work suggests that sustainable catalysts can be made for an oxygen reduction reaction from natural resources.’

He added, ‘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.’

Social Media

Of course, social media users are having a field day with spinach puns.

One tweeted: “Are you sure you want to unsubscribe from Ronnie (aka spinach plant 331, row 9?)”

Is anyone else wishing they studied harder in Chemistry?

Image via Alamy