Science

MIT wants food to let us know when it’s poisonous

Arsenic can contaminate many popular foods, and it’s usually a pain to monitor.

Dangerous cultivation on the polluted field - crop of vegetable is contaminated by poisonous chemicals in the soil. Vector illustration
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Rice, vegetables, and even tea leaves are susceptible to arsenic contamination which can have damaging effects on humans over time. Keeping track of arsenic’s presence in soil is a cumbersome, costly affair, so Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists have developed a better way. They’ve created an optical sensor that lets plants do the monitoring for them.

Smart plants — Scientists from the Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP) research group at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) have essentially biohacked a selection of plants. The sensors they developed can be embedded into plants without hurting the plant or any of its essential functions.

Typically, soil assessments and detecting contaminants in plants can involve a meticulous sampling process that destroys at least a part of the plant as well as unwieldy equipment. The MIT researchers’ sensor simplifies the process and can signal changes to farmers and ecologists by essentially glowing different colors.

A little poison goes a long way — Sure, we no longer just keep rat poison under the kitchen sink, but arsenic still finds its way into our lives. Both naturally occurring and a byproduct of processes like mining and waste disposal, arsenic can accumulate in soil and groundwater. It can pass directly to humans through well water or pass into food crops.

In addition to negatively affecting plants’ ability to grow and thrive, arsenic exposure to humans can lead to several health issues, particularly in the cardiovascular system. It's also carcinogenic. By keeping our food and water as safe as possible, we can not only help the environment but likely save many lives in the process, too.