AI-controlled Greenhouse Uses 90 Percent Less Water To Produce Salads

Californian startup  Iron Ox runs an indoor farm complete with a few hundred plants—and two robot farmers. Instead of using technology to grow genetically modified food, a former Google engineer partnered with one of his friends who had a PhD in robotics to open a technology-based farm where they plant, seed, and grow heads of lettuce.

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Iron Ox’s goal is to provide quality produce to everyone without a premium price. According to Natural Society the average head of lettuce travels 2,055 miles from farm to market, which is why fresh lettuce is often so expensive. Currently, Iron Ox only provides produce to restaurants and grocery stores in the Bay Area of California, which is why after a daily harvest, their products are hours fresh as opposed to shipped in. The company aims to open greenhouses near other major cities, guaranteeing same-day delivery from their trucks at a fraction of the price of the current supply chain.

So why the robots? Lettuce has always been a testing ground for farming innovation, from early greenhouses to closed aquaponic ecosystems. According to Iron Ox, their AI-controlled greenhouse uses 90 percent less water than traditional farms, and because of the technology, each head of lettuce receives intimate individualized attention that is not realistic with human labor. Iron Ox also says that because they grow their products indoors with no pesticides, they don’t have to worry about typical farming issues like stray animals eating their product.

Iron Ox has yet to launch a fully-functioning automated greenhouse, but hope to build their first by the end of 2017. However, Iron Ox is not the only company to experiment with robot farming. Spread, a sustainable farming organization, broke ground on their first techno-farm, which will be fully automated and operated by robots growing lettuce, in May. They have plans to expand to the Middle East next and then continue growing.

Does this mean the future of produce is automation? Not exactly. Agriculture is complex business, and not all produce can be greenhouse-grown as efficiently and effectively as lettuce. But it’s one more reason for farmers to be aware of how the robots are coming for us all.

Source: https://www.saveur.com/

Editing Genes In Human Embryos

Two new CRISPR tools overcome the scariest parts of gene editing.The ability to edit RNA and individual DNA base pairs will make gene editing much more precise. Several years ago, scientists discovered a technique known as CRISPR/Cas9, which allowed them to edit DNA more efficiently than ever before.
Since then, CRISPR science has exploded; it’s become one of the most exciting and fast-moving areas of research, transforming everything from medicine to agriculture and energy. In 2017 alone, more than 14,000 CRISPR studies were published.

But here’s the thing: CRISPR, while a major leap forward in gene editing, can still be a blunt instrument. There have been problems with CRISPR modifying unintended gene targets and making worrisome, and permanent, edits to an organism’s genome. These changes could be passed down through generations, which has raised the stakes of CRISPR experiments — and the twin specters of “designer babies” and genetic performance enhancers — particularly when it comes to editing genes in human embryos.
So while CRISPR science is advancing quickly, scientists are still very much in the throes of tweaking and refining their toolkit. And on Wednesday, researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard launched a coordinated blitz with two big reports that move CRISPR in that safer and more precise direction.
In a paper published in Science, researchers described an entirely new CRISPR-based gene editing tool that targets RNA, DNA’s sister, allowing for transient changes to genetic material. In Nature, scientists described how a more refined type of CRISPR gene editing can alter a single bit of DNA without cutting it — increasing the tool’s precision and efficiency.

The first paper, out Wednesday in Science, describes a new gene editing system. This one, from researchers at MIT and Harvard, focuses on tweaking human RNA instead of DNA.

Our cells contain chromosomes made up of chemical strands called DNA, which carry genetic information. Those genes have recipes for proteins that lead to a bunch of different traits. But to carry out the instructions in any one recipe, DNA needs another type of genetic material called RNA to get involved.

RNA is ephemeral: It acts like a middleman, or a messenger. For a gene to become a protein, that gene has to be transcribed into RNA in the cell, and the RNA is then read to make the protein. If the DNA is permanent — the family recipe book passed down through generations — the RNA is like your aunt’s scribbled-out recipe on a Post-It note, turning up only when it’s needed and disappearing again.

With the CRISPR/Cas9 system, researchers are focused on editing DNA. (For more on how that system works, read this Vox explainer.) But the new Science paper describes a novel gene editing tool called REPAIR that’s focused on using a different enzyme, Cas13, to edit that transient genetic material, the RNA, in cells. REPAIR can target specific RNA letters, or nucleosides, that are involved in single-base changes that regularly cause disease in humans.

This is hugely appealing for one big reason: With CRISPR/Cas9, the changes to the genome, or the cell’s recipe book, are permanent. You can’t undo them. With REPAIR, since researchers can target single bits of ephemeral RNA, the changes they make are transient, even reversible. So this system could fix genetic mutations without actually touching the genome (like throwing away your aunt’s Post-It note recipe without adding it to the family recipe book).

Source: https://www.vox.com/

Harvest: How To Increase The Production By Up To 40%

Nanolabs, a company specialised in nanotechnology, has been able to increase the production of melons by up to 40% on a farm in Almeria (Spain), thanks to the installation of ASAR systems in the irrigation system of the farm.
In 2015, 30,000 kilos were harvested, while in the same period of 2016, this figure increased to 50,000 kilos; a 40% growth.
To achieve this, Nanolabs applies nanotechnology through its ASAR solution, which acts physically on water, emitting a quantum of energy that stimulates hydrogen bonds. As a result, these become more active, which translates into a better transport of nutrients to the crops and a significant improvement in the use of the nutrients present in the substrate. The increase in production has not been the only benefit of the project; it has also made it possible to improve the quality of the fruit and has reduced both the consumption of water for irrigation and the use of fertilisers and phytosanitary products by 20%.
For Javier Llanes, CEO of Nanolabs, “the dramatic increase in the melon production is just one example of the great benefits that nanotechnology can bring to the agricultural sector. At Nanolabs, we apply technology to promote sustainability and we work on innovative projects with impressive results in both production improvement and savings in water consumption.”

Source: http://www.freshplaza.com/

How To Turn Plants Into Bomb-Sniffing Machines

Spinach is no longer just a superfood: By embedding leaves with carbon nanotubes, MIT engineers have transformed spinach plants into sensors that can detect explosives and wirelessly relay that information to a handheld device similar to a smartphone. This is one of the first demonstrations of engineering electronic systems into plants, an approach that the researchers call “plant nanobionics”.

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The goal of plant nanobionics is to introduce nanoparticles into the plant to give it non-native functions,” says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the leader of the research team.

In this case, the plants were designed to detect chemical compounds known as nitroaromatics, which are often used in landmines and other explosives. When one of these chemicals is present in the groundwater sampled naturally by the plant, carbon nanotubes embedded in the plant leaves emit a fluorescent signal that can be read with an infrared camera. The camera can be attached to a small computer similar to a smartphone, which then sends an email to the user.

This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier,” says Strano, who believes plant power could also be harnessed to warn of pollutants and environmental conditions such as drought.

Strano is the senior author of a paper describing the nanobionic plants in  Nature Materials. The paper’s lead authors are Min Hao Wong, an MIT graduate student who has started a company called Plantea to further develop this technology, and Juan Pablo Giraldo, a former MIT postdoc who is now an assistant professor at the University of California at Riverside.

Michael McAlpine, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota, says this approach holds great potential for engineering not only sensors but many other kinds of bionic plants that might receive radio signals or change color. “When you have manmade materials infiltrated into a living organism, you can have plants do things that plants don’t ordinarily do,” says McAlpine, who was not involved in the research. “Once you start to think of living organisms like plants as biomaterials that can be combined with electronic materials, this is all possible.”

In the 2014 plant nanobionics study, Strano’s lab worked with a common laboratory plant known as Arabidopsis thaliana. However, the researchers wanted to use common spinach plants for the latest study, to demonstrate the versatility of this technique. “You can apply these techniques with any living plant,” Strano says. So far, the researchers have also engineered spinach plants that can detect dopamine, which influences plant root growth, and they are now working on additional sensors, including some that track the chemicals plants use to convey information within their own tissues. “Plants are very environmentally responsive,” Strano says. “They know that there is going to be a drought long before we do. They can detect small changes in the properties of soil and water potential. If we tap into those chemical signaling pathways, there is a wealth of information to access.”

These sensors could also help botanists learn more about the inner workings of plants, monitor plant health, and maximize the yield of rare compounds synthesized by plants such as the Madagascar periwinkle, which produces drugs used to treat cancer. “These sensors give real-time information from the plant. It is almost like having the plant talk to us about the environment they are in,” Wong says. “In the case of precision agriculture, having such information can directly affect yield and margins.”

Source: http://news.mit.edu/

How To Turn Algae Into Solar Powered Factories

Genes from the family of bacteria that produce vinegar, Kombucha tea and nata de coco have become stars in a project that would turn algae into solar-powered factories for producing the “wonder materialnanocellulose. Reports on advances in getting those genes to produce fully functional nanocellulose were part of the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s largest scientific society.
Nanocellulose
If we can complete the final steps, we will have accomplished one of the most important potential agricultural transformations ever,” said R. Malcolm Brown, Jr., Ph.D. “We will have plants that produce nanocellulose abundantly and inexpensively. It can become the raw material for sustainable production of biofuels and many other products. While producing nanocellulose, the algae will absorb carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas linked to global warming.

Most cellulose consists of wood fibers and cell wall remains. Very few living organisms can actually synthesize and secrete cellulose in its native nanostructure form of microfibrils. At this level, nanometer-scale fibrils are very hydrophilic and look like jelly. A nanometer is one-millionth the thickness of a U.S. dime. Nevertheless, cellulose shares the unique properties of other nanometer-sized materials — properties much different from large quantities of the same material. Nanocellulose-based materials can be stronger than steel and stiffer than Kevlar. Great strength, light weight and other advantages has fostered interest in using it in everything from lightweight armor and ballistic glass to wound dressings and scaffolds for growing replacement organs for transplantation.

Source: http://www.eurekalert.org/