While it’s unlikely that your email inbox would contain a message sent by spinach, it’s not impossible.
In late 2016, engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) published a study [PDF] in the journal Nature Materials detailing how they taught spinach plants to transmit automatic emails. The news recently re-circulated, due in part to an updated article from Euronews, and social media users wasted no time in churning out all their best spinach-related jokes.
Comical though it seems, the study wasn’t just done for fun. Basically, the researchers implanted spinach plants with carbon nanotubes that emitted a fluorescent signal when they sensed nitroaromatic compounds—a common component in explosives—in the soil. An infrared camera would register that fluorescence, which would prompt a small computer attached to the camera to send an email alert straight to a researcher’s inbox.
Though that study was specific to seeing if spinach could detect explosive materials, the overarching idea is to harness plants’ natural capabilities so they can help us gather other intelligence about the environment.
“Plants are very good analytical chemists,” Michael Strano, an MIT chemical engineering professor and leader of the study, said in a press release. “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.”
The MIT team has also used plant nanotubes to reveal other substances present in the soil—like sarin, a colorless, odorless nerve gas used in chemical warfare. In a study published last year, Strano and researchers at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) embedded plants with nanotubes that monitored plants’ hydrogen peroxide levels. Plants often release hydrogen peroxide when they experience damage or stress, so understanding what triggers that response could potentially help farmers improve growing conditions.
In short, spinach’s relatively newfound email skills symbolize something even more important: Plants can communicate with us better than ever before.