MIT Team in Singapore Develop Advanced Nanotube Sensors for Plant Growth Hormone Detection

14 Apr 2023

On 7th March 2023, a research group from the Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP), an interdisciplinary research group of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) and their partners from Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory announced a significant breakthrough in the area of agriculture and plant biotechnology.

The researchers successfully developed a unique, one of its kind, nanosensor which has the ability to detect and distinguish a specific class of hormones required for plant growth, namely, gibberellins (GAs).

Gibberellins promote the elongation of cells, which results in increased plant height, and are involved in various important processes, such as seed germination, stem elongation, fruit ripening, and flower development.

The research team has been successful in testing the nanosensor on living plants and reveals that this technology can conduct early-stage plant stress monitoring, which can be essential for crop management and precision agriculture. 

The funding for this research was provided by the National Research Foundation of Singapore under its Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE) program.

Read the complete story to know about the research and its potential to make significant advances in agricultural science and boost food security.

The Nanosensor and the Science Behind 

Climate change, global warming, and rising sea levels are causing farming soil to become contaminated with salt water, leading to increased soil salinity. This increase in salinity negatively affects the biosynthesis of gibberellin (GA) by promoting GA metabolism, which results in reduced GA content in plants. 

However, the new nanosensor technology developed by DiSTAP and Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory can monitor GA dynamics in living plants under salinity stress at an early stage, which would enable farmers to make early interventions when applied in the field.

The nanosensors designed by the researchers use near-infrared fluorescent carbon nanotubes to identify two specific types of gibberellins, GA3 and GA4, which are diterpenoid phytohormones involved in regulating various aspects of plant growth and development. 

This technology contrasts with the current method of using mass spectroscopy-based analysis, which is time-consuming and involves the fragmentation of the sample, which can lead to the loss of valuable information and damage to the sample when being analyzed.  

Furthermore, the research has been published in the journal Nano Letters, and it builds on a previous study led by SMART on single-walled carbon nanotube-based nanosensors that used the corona phase molecular recognition (CoPhMoRe) platform.

According to the findings, the nanosensors were able to detect GA kinetics in the roots of a variety of model and non-model plant species, including arabidopsis, lettuce, and basil. 

The researchers also found that lettuce growth was severely stunted under salinity stress, an indication that only became apparent after 10 days. 

In contrast, the GA nanosensors reported decreased GA levels after just six hours, demonstrating their efficacy as a quick indicator of salinity stress.

Moreover, the nanosensors can also measure GA accumulation during lateral root emergence, which demonstrates the importance of GA in the architecture of the root system. 

This was made possible because of a new coupled Raman/near-infrared fluorimeter, which simplifies instrumentation requirements by using a single optical channel to measure hormone concentration. 

This hardware innovation enabled the self-referencing of nanosensor near-infrared fluorescence with its Raman G-band, eliminating the need for a separate reference nanosensor.

The CoPhMoRe technique, developed in the lab of MIT Professor Michael Strano, is applied to create nanoparticles that act like natural antibodies in recognizing and locking onto specific molecules. 

This CoPhMoRe technique enabled the researchers to create nanosensors for plant signals such as hydrogen peroxide and heavy-metal pollutants such as arsenic in plants and soil. 

Moreover, the technique has also been successfully used in the past to create sensors for organic molecules such as synthetic auxin, another important plant hormone, and now the gibberellin family of plant hormones, which are difficult to recognize.

Michael Strano, the professor of chemical engineering at MIT and co-corresponding author and DiSTAP co-lead principal investigator, said, “The resulting technology offers a rapid, real-time, and in vivo method to monitor changes in GA levels in virtually any plant and can replace current sensing methods which are laborious, destructive, species-specific, and much less efficient.”

Furthermore, the sensors could have various industrial applications and use cases, and the research represents a major advance in the translation of nanosensing tool sets to the field.

Mervin Chun-Yi Ang, associate scientific director at DiSTAP and co-author of the paper, said, “In the near future, our sensors can be combined with low-cost electronics, portable optodes, or microneedle interfaces for industrial use, transforming how the industry screens for and mitigates plant stress in food crops and potentially improving growth and yield.”

With such advanced agriculture sensors, farmers can closely monitor their crops and reduce plant stress levels caused due to various factors such as lack of water, excessive heat, or insect infestations. 

These agriculture sensors can provide real-time data on the health and growth of crops, allowing farmers to make informed decisions about when to water, fertilize, or take other necessary actions to ensure optimal crop growth.

Moreover, the newly developed agriculture nanosensors can be profitable for farmers and the agricultural food supply chain.

Due to these advantages, agriculture sensors and nanosensors are in high demand in the market and are attracting various investors and researchers to contribute.

According to data insights from BIS Research, the global agriculture sensors market was valued at $3.59 billion in 2022 and is expected to reach $7.59 billion in 2027, following a CAGR of 16.12% during 2022-2027.

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The success of sensor technology in agriculture enables a deeper understanding and control of plant biosynthetic pathways, especially in the context of green leafy vegetables.

Moreover, the agriculture sensors will also be used to engineer plants with highly desirable properties for global food security, including high-yield density production, drought, and pathogen resistance. 


With the increasing demand for sustainable agriculture practices and the need to feed a growing global population, the development of agriculture sensors is becoming increasingly crucial.

With the advent of nanosensor technology, agriculture sensors are becoming more precise and efficient, enabling farmers to take early interventions to save time and costs and prevent crop losses.

Moreover, the use of agriculture sensors can also enable the automation of farming practices, reducing the need for manual labor and increasing productivity.

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