Seed World

Nanotechnology Could Transform Global Food Production

Carnegie Mellon’s Greg Lowry studies plant nanobiotechnology in his environmental engineering lab, looking at using nanocarriers to make plants more resilient. Photo provided by Carnegie Mellon College of Engineering

Carnegie Mellon University researchers are using nanomedicine and digital twin technologies to tackle climate change, improve crop yields and ensure food security for the future.

Researchers in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University are leveraging findings from nanomedicine and digital twin technologies to explore the emerging field of Plant Nanobiotechnology. Their goal is to address unsustainable agricultural practices and meet the growing global food demands.

Currently, agriculture contributes to 14-28% of global greenhouse gas emissions and accounts for 70% of all freshwater withdrawals. These issues, compounded by factors like extreme weather events, widespread crop pests and rapidly degrading soil, highlight the urgent need for new agricultural practices and technologies.

In a recent study published in Nature Nanotechnology, researchers emphasize that Plant Nanobiotechnology can be used to deliver nanoforms of active agents, such as micronutrients or plant protection products, to specific biological targets. This approach can make plants more resilient to diseases and environmental stressors like extreme heat or high soil salinity, thereby increasing crop yield and efficiency. However, since Plant Nanobiotechnology is still in its early stages, many challenges related to implementing new tools like nanocarriers remain unknown.

To tackle these challenges, civil and environmental engineering professor Greg Lowry, along with co-corresponding author Juan Pablo Giraldo from the University of California Riverside, colleagues and students, is drawing inspiration from the well-established field of nanomedicine.

“We found that the challenges of using nanocarriers to deliver nutrients in plants parallel those in nanomedicine, which has the advantage of being an established and well-studied field,” Lowry said in a news release. “While there are some key differences between plants and animals, many important parts of our research have been informed by nanomedicine, including identifying nanocarrier designs that can ensure active agents are effectively packaged, delivered and released where they are needed.”

Researchers discovered that, similar to nanomedicine, nanocarriers are most effective when they interact well with the target organism, navigate key biological barriers and leverage natural processes while minimizing unintended consequences. The study also explored the innovative approach of creating “digital twins” of plants to evaluate the efficacy of different nanocarrier designs.

Digital twins, breakthrough modeling technologies, have been extensively used in infrastructure management, predictive maintenance and manufacturing. Their ability to analyze a structure and its surroundings, process the information and use it to inform, predict and modify real-world outcomes has revolutionized data processing.

Just as medical researchers use “digital patients” to simulate how medicines interact with the human body, Lowry and his team aim to use “digital plants” to design nanocarriers that deliver nutrients to specific plant organs. This would enhance the precision and effectiveness of nutrient delivery, improving plant resilience and agricultural productivity.

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

More information: Study in Nature Nanotechnology