Nanotechnology for Plant Nutrition

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An innovative technology developed at the Technion could lead to significant increases in agricultural yields. Using a nanometric transport platform on plants that was previously utilized for targeted drug delivery, researchers increased the penetration rate of nutrients into the plants, from 1 percent to approximately 33 percent. The findings were recently published in Scientific Reports and are scheduled to be presented in Nature Press.

Use of nanotechnology for targeted drug delivery is a new approach and is the focus of the research activity being conducted at the Laboratory for Targeted Drug Delivery and Personalized Medicine Technologies at the Wolfson Faculty of Chemical Engineering.

The present research, which repurposed the technology for agricultural use, was performed by the laboratory director, Assistant Professor Avi Schroeder, and graduate student, Avishai Karny.

“The constant growth in the world population demands more efficient agricultural technologies, which will produce more and healthier foods and reduce environmental damage,” says Schroeder. “The present work provides a new means of delivering essential nutrients without harming the environment.”

The researchers loaded the nutrients into liposomes – small spheres generated in the laboratory, comprised of a fatty outer layer enveloping the required nutrients. The liposomes are stable in the plant’s aqueous environment and can penetrate into the cells. In addition, the Technion researchers can “program” the liposomes to disintegrate and release the load at precisely the location and time of interest, namely, in the roots and leaves. Disintegration occurs in acidic environments or in response to an external signal, such as light waves or heat. Of note, the molecules comprising the particles are derived from soy plants and are therefore approved and safe for consumption by both humans and animals.

In the present experiment, the researchers used 100-nanometer liposomes to deliver nutrients – iron and magnesium – into both young and adult tomato crops. They demonstrated that the liposomes, which were sprayed in the form of a solution onto the leaves, penetrated the leaves and reached other leaves and roots. Only when reaching the root cells did they disintegrate and release the nutrients.

In addition to demonstrating the high effectiveness of this approach, as compared to the standard spray method, the researchers also assessed the regulatory limitations associated with the spread of volatile particles. “Our engineered liposomes are only stable within a short spraying range, up to 2 meters,” explains Schroeder. “If they travel in the air beyond that distance, they break down into safe materials (phospholipids). We believe that the success of this study will expand the research and development of similar agricultural products, to increase the yield and quality of food crops and nourish a 7-billion community of people on earth.”

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