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Can medical advances in nanotechnology make agriculture more sustainable?

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Can medical advances in nanotechnology make agriculture more sustainable?

Researchers explore medical nanotech that could help crops use fertilizer more efficiently, fight disease, and adapt to climate change.
June 28, 2024

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It’s possible these days to treat some cancers with nanoparticles (100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair) that deliver drugs directly to a tumor site. Now, a team of researchers believe that nanotechnology could be exactly the innovation that farming needs to usher it into a sustainable, climate-adapted future.

In a new Nature Nanotechnology article, the researchers start by highlighting where medical nanotechnologies and agriculture overlap. In medicine, researchers have created nanoparticles that can be loaded with ingredients, coated with proteins that bind to receptors, and guided to precise locations in the body. In their new paper, the authors argue that these same principles can help solve some of the most monumental challenges in agriculture.

Currently, farmers dump 75 millions of tons of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers on croplands. but only 35% of it is actually absorbed by the plants. The other 65% runs off into freshwater and soils. Nutrient-loaded nanoparticles, small enough to be absorbed directly into plants through their pores, might enable more conservative and very precise applications of fertilizer.  

Medical nanotechnologies have also enabled drug-bearing particles to release their cargo in timed phases. Some are designed to release their contents only when they are triggered by chemical changes in the body. For plants, the applications here run the gamut from nutrition to disease prevention, to climate adaptation. Nutrient-bearing particles could be designed to detect declining levels of phosphorus and release their load only when they sense that these ingredients are low. Others could be tailored to release medicines when a pathogen is detected. 

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Here’s how precision agriculture could help farmers reduce fertilizer use

Researchers have already shown that they can design a nanoparticle that will release a dose of photosynthesis-boosting nutrients when it detects the presence of a fungal enzyme in wheat and soybeans—helping plants fight the pathogen’s spread. Other studies show that nanoparticles will release stress-soothing hormones such as spermidine into plant tissues when they detect chemical signs of stress. The idea is to help plants cope with extreme weather and protect yields in a changing climate.

Still, there are technical challenges that must be overcome to realize the benefits of nanotechnology in agriculture, the researchers emphasize. Plant cells have unique structural barriers that don’t exist in human cells, which will make it difficult for nanoparticles to pass through to their cellular targets. As such, researchers will need to develop new molecules, ingredients, and pathways to guide nanoparticles to their intended targets inside plant tissues. Another challenge is the sheer scale of agriculture compared to medicine. Scaling up nanotech to meet agricultural demands will require raw materials and energy to actually make the particles, as well as resources to deliver them onto the land. Some solutions are out there, like producing biodegradable nanoparticles out of agricultural waste. 

The road ahead for agricultural nanotech appears long and uncertain—perhaps even more so than in medicine. But to build a more resilient food future, the researchers insist that we must engage and grapple with these emerging ideas. “There is a tremendous need for disruptive technologies to overcome challenges to meeting future food demand.”

Lowry et. al. “Towards realizing nano-enabled precision delivery in plants.Nature Nanotechnology. 2024.

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