Believe it or not, most plants aren’t actually very efficient when it comes to taking in nutrients. While that isn’t true for things like cacti that are forced to survive in harsh environments, it is for many of the plants and crops that humans rely on for food. When it comes to fertilizers and pesticides that keep them growing strong, that efficiency decreases even further.
Now, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have created a nanoscale technology that greatly boosts the absorption efficiency of plants. They claim that it can increase uptake to a shocking 99 percent.
Most people probably don’t like the thought of spraying their eventual food with pesticides. Sadly, it is an unfortunate side effect of having to feed seven billion people. Without artificial fertilizers and pesticides, there wouldn’t be enough crop yield to keep everyone fed.
However, spraying plants with these substances is a highly inefficient practice. Some scientists estimate that as little as one percent of the fertilizer and pesticides used in industrial food production is actually absorbed by the plant. The other 99 percent is wasted and simply soaks into the soil. Obviously, that is a huge source of waste and unneeded spending.
The technique demonstrated by Greg Lowry and his team from Carnegie Mellon reverses those statistics. With their method, plants absorb 99 percent of molecules and waste just one percent.
It uses nanoparticles to coat the molecular substances that need to be absorbed by the plant. TechCrunch’s Darrell Etherington describes it by saying, “Essentially, it’s like custom-creating Lego blocks for receptors on the leaf’s surface and then tying the nutrients you want to deliver to those custom Lego blocks for a perfect fit.”
Lowry and his team have successfully demonstrated that it’s possible to engineer custom nanoparticles that target pores on the surface of a certain plant’s leaf.
Their research was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Nanoscale Communications.
The world faces many challenges—many of them existential. Figuring out how to feed an expanding population without an expanding wealth of resources will take plenty of creative solutions.
This one has the potential to create major waves in the industrial farming world. Estimates suggest that as much as 40 percent of potential crop yield is lost annually. That, at least partially, is due to diseases that can be eliminated with effective pesticides. If farmers were able to ensure that plants actually absorbed the substances, they would be far less susceptible to disease.
Meanwhile, the same nanoparticle technology works with fertilizers. This means that the plants themselves could be stimulated to grow bigger and produce more crops. Even better, researchers believe that fertilizer and pesticides could be combined into a single “dose” of nanoparticles to provide the benefits of each.
Of course, the question remains whether or not increasing the amount of pesticides absorbed into the food we eat can have negative health effects. It will certainly be worth studying in the years to come if this or a similar approach takes hold and becomes commonplace.