Tuesday, 19 December 2017 14:36

Engineers create plants that glow

Illumination from nanobionic plants might one day replace some electrical lighting.


MIT Glowing Plants Web
Illumination of a book (“Paradise Lost,” by John Milton) with the nanobionic light-emitting plants (two 3.5-week-old watercress plants). The book and the light-emitting watercress plants were placed in front of a reflective paper to increase the influence from the light emitting plants to the book pages. Image, Seon-Yeong Kwak

Imagine that instead of switching on a lamp when it gets dark, you could read by the light of a glowing plant on your desk.

MIT engineers have taken a critical first step toward making that vision a reality. By embedding specialized nanoparticles into the leaves of a watercress plant, they induced the plants to give off dim light for nearly four hours. They believe that, with further optimization, such plants will one day be bright enough to illuminate a workspace.

“The vision is to make a plant that will function as a desk lamp — a lamp that you don’t have to plug in. The light is ultimately powered by the energy metabolism of the plant itself,” says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the senior author of the study.

This technology could also be used to provide low-intensity indoor lighting, or to transform trees into self-powered streetlights, the researchers say. MIT postdoc Seon-Yeong Kwak is the lead author of the study, which appears in the journal Nano Letters.

Nanobionic plants

Plant nanobionics, a new research area pioneered by Strano’s lab, aims to give plants novel features by embedding them with different types of nanoparticles. The group’s goal is to engineer plants to take over many of the functions now performed by electrical devices. The researchers have previously designed plants that can detect explosives and communicate that information to a smartphone, as well as plants that can monitor drought conditions.

Lighting, which accounts for about 20 percent of worldwide energy consumption, seemed like a logical next target. “Plants can self-repair, they have their own energy, and they are already adapted to the outdoor environment,” Strano says. “We think this is an idea whose time has come. It’s a perfect problem for plant nanobionics.”

To create their glowing plants, the MIT team turned to luciferase, the enzyme that gives fireflies their glow. Luciferase acts on a molecule called luciferin, causing it to emit light. Another molecule called co-enzyme A helps the process along by removing a reaction byproduct that can inhibit luciferase activity.

The MIT team packaged each of these three components into a different type of nanoparticle carrier. The nanoparticles, which are all made of materials that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies as “generally regarded as safe,” help each component get to the right part of the plant. They also prevent the components from reaching concentrations that could be toxic to the plants.

The researchers used silica nanoparticles about 10 nanometers in diameter to carry luciferase, and they used slightly larger particles of the polymers PLGA and chitosan to carry luciferin and coenzyme A, respectively. To get the particles into plant leaves, the researchers first suspended the particles in a solution. Plants were immersed in the solution and then exposed to high pressure, allowing the particles to enter the leaves through tiny pores called stomata.

Particles releasing luciferin and coenzyme A were designed to accumulate in the extracellular space of the mesophyll, an inner layer of the leaf, while the smaller particles carrying luciferase enter the cells that make up the mesophyll. The PLGA particles gradually release luciferin, which then enters the plant cells, where luciferase performs the chemical reaction that makes luciferin glow.

Video: Melanie Gonick/MIT

The researchers’ early efforts at the start of the project yielded plants that could glow for about 45 minutes, which they have since improved to 3.5 hours. The light generated by one 10-centimeter watercress seedling is currently about one-thousandth of the amount needed to read by, but the researchers believe they can boost the light emitted, as well as the duration of light, by further optimizing the concentration and release rates of the components.

Plant transformation

Previous efforts to create light-emitting plants have relied on genetically engineering plants to express the gene for luciferase, but this is a laborious process that yields extremely dim light. Those studies were performed on tobacco plants and Arabidopsis thaliana, which are commonly used for plant genetic studies. However, the method developed by Strano’s lab could be used on any type of plant. So far, they have demonstrated it with arugula, kale, and spinach, in addition to watercress.

For future versions of this technology, the researchers hope to develop a way to paint or spray the nanoparticles onto plant leaves, which could make it possible to transform trees and other large plants into light sources.

“Our target is to perform one treatment when the plant is a seedling or a mature plant, and have it last for the lifetime of the plant,” Strano says. “Our work very seriously opens up the doorway to streetlamps that are nothing but treated trees, and to indirect lighting around homes.”

The researchers have also demonstrated that they can turn the light off by adding nanoparticles carrying a luciferase inhibitor. This could enable them to eventually create plants that shut off their light emission in response to environmental conditions such as sunlight, the researchers say.

The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

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Anne Trafton | MIT News Office 
December 12, 2017


Wednesday, 01 November 2017 17:43

A magical dimension

Engineering at the nanoscale opens new doors to control optical, electronic and magnetic behaviors of materials and enable new multi-functional devices

Materials Day Panel 9584 DP Web
MIT MRL External Advisory Board Chair Julia Phillips [far left] moderated the Materials Day Symposium panel on “Frontiers in Materials Research.” She was joined by [from second left] Professors Karen Gleason, Caroline Ross, Timothy Swager, and Vladimir Bulović. The session was held Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017.

Newly discovered optical, electronic and magnetic behaviors at the nanoscale, multifunctional devices that integrate with living systems, and the predictive power of machine learning are driving innovations in materials science, a panel of MIT professors told the MIT Materials Research Laboratory [MRL] Materials Day Symposium.

“The development of new material sets is a key to the launch of new physical technologies,” Professor Vladimir Bulović, founding director of MIT.nano, said. “Once we get down to the nanoscale, we can start inducing quantum phenomena that were never quite accessible. So that scale between 1 nanometer, the typical size of a molecule, and on the order of, let’s say, 20 nanometers, that’s a magical dimension, where you can fine tune your optical, electronic and magnetic properties.”

Professor Caroline Ross, Associate Head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, cited a trend of harnessing nature to self assemble complex structures. “As we want to make things smaller and smaller, we need to have nature helping out,” she said. Ross noted progress on a range of new multi-functional materials that use, for example, extremely low voltage levels  to control magnetism or that use strain to control electronic properties. “All of these can enable new kinds of devices from those materials, so you can imagine devices which are smart that can have memory or logic functions, that can have analog instead of just digital type of behavior, that can work together to make smart circuits. … The difficulties of integrating those types of materials will be well paid for by the new sorts of functionality we can get from the devices we make.”

MIT MRL External Advisory Board Chair Julia Phillips moderated the Materials Day Symposium panel on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. Phillips is a former Sandia National Laboratories executive.

Professor Timothy Swager, Director of the Deshpande Center, said the expectation that new medical devices, for example, are compatible with our bodies demands different requirements than previous generations of electronics. “Thinking about how we interface complex dynamic chemically reactive systems with a material is really a very important area that, I think, will continue to be of importance and many good discoveries are going to come about as result of the interest in that area,” he said.

Associate Provost and Professor Karen Gleason spoke of the growing influence of machine learning on materials advances and the potential for one-dimensional and two-dimensional materials to provide better computers and memory storage. “It’s going be incredible for materials discovery as we learn how to use machine learning to predict what materials are optimal, but there’s also a credible place for materials in making this technology grow. Now computational power and memory and databases have gotten large enough that the predictive power is actually great.”

“The biggest component is you need the data so you need all of these sensors for accurate positioning, for detection of gases, for health. People want wearables,” Gleason said. “So I think this is an enormous field with tremendous impact in many different ways that materials can play.”

Bulović said while it takes a lot of perseverance to implement a new idea on the nanoscale, “It’s important to highlight that the invention of an idea happens in a moment, that eureka moment, but to actually scale that idea up so a million people can hold it in their hands, that takes a decade sometimes, especially if it’s in the materials space. Recognition of that is important in order to support the evolution of the new ideas.”

The annual Materials Day Symposium was hosted for the first time by the MIT Materials Research Laboratory, which formed from the merger of the Materials Processing Center and the Center for Materials Science and Engineering, effective Oct. 1, 2017. The MIT MRL will work hand-in-hand with MIT.nano, the central research facility being built in the heart of the MIT campus due to open in June 2018. MIT will receive a $2.5 million gift from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation to help develop a state-of-the-art cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) center to be housed at the MIT.nano facility.

“I don’t think we can underestimate the value of the tool sets in providing us the direction to what we need to do to advance life as we know it,” Bulović said. “I get struck by the example of DNA … It took 80-plus years to obtain the first inkling that there was something twisted inside our cells. Then we debated for another decade, is this thing really a twisted molecule inside our cells. If you add it all up, 80, 90 years of debate. Today that’s reduced to a couple of hours of work by one graduate student who can take a cell, pull out a nucleus, put it under a scanning tunneling microscope or cryo electron microscope and see a twisted molecule we call DNA now.”

Swager noted that biologists also will use MIT.nano. “They are going to be using the cryo-EM in the basement, so nano is not only for engineers and molecule builders. … I think that’s going to be really exciting and where that fusion leads us, who knows.”

Moderator Phillips asked the panelists what tool sets that would like to see in MIT.nano. Gleason said she would like to see chemical vapor deposition for thin polymer films. Ross said that MIT needs to be at the forefront for materials characterization tools. “We need to have the best tools to do the best work,” Ross said. She would like to see MIT.nano get the best possible electron microscope and advanced deposition tools for oxide molecular beam epitaxy and building up complex materials layer by layer. Swager said it is important for the shared facility to house tools for rapid prototyping and fabrication of devices.back to newsletter

Denis Paiste, Materials Research Laboratory
November 27, 2017

Related: Poster Highlights

Interdisciplinary materials science model offers key to progress

Monday, 23 October 2017 15:07

A new approach to ultrafast light pulses

Unusual fluorescent materials could be used for rapid light-based communications systems.

MIT FastLight Emit 1 Daily
In this image, light strikes a molecular lattice deposited on a metal substrate. The molecules can quickly exchange energy with the metal below, a mechanism that leads to a much faster response time for the emission of fluorescent light from the lattice. Courtesy of the researchers

Two-dimensional materials called molecular aggregates are very effective light emitters that work on a different principle than typical organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) or quantum dots. But their potential as components for new kinds of optoelectronic devices has been limited by their relatively slow response time. Now, researchers at MIT, the University of California at Berkeley, and Northeastern University have found a way to overcome that limitation, potentially opening up a variety of applications for these materials.

The findings are described in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in a paper by MIT associate professor of mechanical engineering Nicholas X. Fang, postdocs Qing Hu and Dafei Jin, and five others.

The key to enhancing the response time of these 2-D molecular aggregates (2DMA), Fang and his team found, is to couple that material with a thin layer of a metal such as silver. The interaction between the 2DMA and the metal that is just a few nanometers away boosts the speed of the material’s light pulses more than tenfold. 

Read more at the MIT News Office.

David L. Chandler | MIT News Office
Sept. 18, 2017