Improving agriculture with nanotechnology

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Cutting-edge technologies have revolutionized targeted drug delivery to specific cells in the human body. Now, experts argue that these same technologies must be harnessed for agricultural purposes in order to sustainably meet the world’s growing food needs.

In a recent review paper in the prestigious Nature journal, leading scientists from UC Riverside and Carnegie Mellon University outline key strategies for leveraging nanotechnology to enhance agriculture.

Nanotechnology, the study and design of ultra-small structures, operates at the nanometer scale – one billionth of a meter, or roughly 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. This technology has facilitated precise drug delivery to specific locations within the body. However, its potential for revolutionizing plant science remains largely untapped on a global scale.

“There are studies predicting we will need to increase food production by up to 60% in 2050 relative to 2020 levels. Right now, we are trying to do that through inefficient agrochemical delivery,” said Juan Pablo Giraldo, UCR associate professor and paper co-corresponding author.

“Half of all the fertilizer applied on farms is lost in the environment and pollutes the groundwater. In the case of commonly used pesticides, it’s even worse. Only 5% reach their intended targets. The rest ends up contaminating the environment. There is a lot of room for improvement,” Giraldo said.

With agriculture contributing up to 28% of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is evident that innovative agricultural practices and technologies are essential. Additionally, the impact of factors such as extreme weather events, crop pests, and soil degradation further highlight this necessity.

The researchers’ review emphasizes the potential of utilizing techniques from nanomedicine to effectively target the delivery of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to specific biological sites.

“We are pioneering targeted delivery technologies based on coating nanomaterials with sugars or peptides that recognize specific proteins on plant cells and organelles,” Giraldo said. “This allows us to take the existing molecular machinery of the plant and guide desired chemicals to where the plant needs them, for example, the plant vasculature, organelles, or sites of plant pathogen infections.”

By implementing these methods, we can enhance the resilience of plants against diseases and detrimental environmental conditions such as extreme heat or high soil salinity. Moreover, this approach is environmentally friendly, minimizing unintended impacts.

Furthermore, the paper discusses the utilization of artificial intelligence and machine learning to develop a “digital twin.” Similar to how medical researchers use computational models to simulate drug interactions within the body, plant researchers can employ this technology to design nanocarrier molecules that efficiently deliver nutrients or agrochemicals to specific plant organs.

“It’s like J.A.R.V.I.S. (Just A Rather Very Intelligent System) from the film Iron Man. Essentially an artificial intelligence guide to help design nanoparticles with controlled delivery properties for agriculture,” Giraldo said. “We can follow up these twin simulations with real-life plant experiments for feedback on the models.”

“Nano-enabled precision delivery of active agents in plants will transform agriculture, but there are critical technical challenges that we must first overcome to realize the full range of its benefits,” said Greg Lowry, Carnegie Mellon engineering professor and co-corresponding author of the review paper.

“I’m optimistic about the future of plant nanobiotechnology approaches and the beneficial impacts it will have on our ability to sustainably produce food.”

Journal reference:

  1. Gregory V. Lowry, Juan Pablo Giraldo, Nicole F. Steinmetz, Astrid Avellan, Gozde S. Demirer, Kurt D. Ristroph, Gerald J. Wang, Christine O. Hendren, Christopher A. Alabi, Adam Caparco, Washington da Silva, Ivonne González-Gamboa, Khara D. Grieger, Su-Ji Jeon, Mariya V. Khodakovskaya, Hagay Kohay, Vivek Kumar, Raja Muthuramalingam, Hanna Poffenbarger, Swadeshmukul Santra, Robert D. Tilton & Jason C. White. Towards realizing nano-enabled precision delivery in plants. Nature Nanotechnology, 2024; DOI: 10.1038/s41565-024-01667-5

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