Behind the success of every Formula 1 team is an array of high-tech sensors and extensive data analytics. Each car is equipped with over 200 sensors tracking everything from individual tire temperature to a driver’s heart rate. While sensors can make the split-second difference between victory and loss in motor racing, they could potentially make an even bigger impact in an industry that is not traditionally thought of as tech-savvy: agriculture.
Set to grow into a US$2-3 billion market by 2026, agricultural sensors have transformed farming all over the world. The goal of precision farming is clear—maximize productivity while minimizing negative environmental effects. Towards this end, factors like weed mapping, salinity and yield are measured and analyzed to point farmers to the best course of action.
Taking the technology one step further, Min Hao Wong, currently a Strategy and Business Development Group Leader at A*STAR, developed nanosensors to gather meaningful data from within plants. Typically, to evaluate the effectiveness of new chemicals or pesticides, farmers would have to wait weeks to observe results—with or without agricultural sensors. Wong’s technology reduces that time substantially.
Wong’s tiny ‘nanobionic’ sensors are designed to interface directly with plant tissue, cells and organelles, and are capable of relaying accurate real-time information to farmers and researchers through infrared communication. Made of carbon nanotubes wrapped with amphiphilic polymers which have separate sections to both attract and repel water, the nanosensors can be delivered in a solution and absorbed through the leaves. The polymers on these nanosensors react to analytes like water and oxygen to determine a plant’s needs—allowing plants to ‘talk’ to farmers and let them know what they need, when they need it.
To bring this technology to farmers, Wong co-founded Plantea, a company selling proprietary nanosensors and software for better plant growth and maximized food production. Through Plantea, Wong and his team aim to eventually develop self-controlled farming environments where sensors determine and automatically set ideal growth conditions like temperature and nutrient levels.
A recipient of A*STAR’s National Science Scholarship, Wong was named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in 2018 as well as an MIT Tech Review Innovators under 35 honoree. In this interview with A*STAR Research, he shares what inspired his research on plant nanosensors and the impact he hopes his technology will have on the future of food in Singapore and beyond.
1. How did you first become interested in designing agricultural nanosensors?
My interest in plants began at a very early age. While still in high school, I participated in a science research program organized by the department of plant biology at a local university, where I had the chance to learn more about the composition of fern and pollen spores in the air and how they can affect human health or cause allergies. I became fascinated with plants, and always wondered if there was a way to make plants communicate information to us.
2. What key agricultural problem will your research address?.
While not everyone knows it, plants are very diverse. Living things are divided into five kingdoms, and plants occupy an entire kingdom of their own called Plantae, beneath which are hundreds of thousands of species.
The nanosensor technology my colleagues and I developed is a species-agnostic way of probing plant health. We aim to utilize biosensors to monitor biotic and abiotic stresses, plant hormonal signaling, as well as soil and crop health, using a minimally invasive technique. If the data obtained can be successfully translated into beneficial interventions during farming, one can potentially improve both the quantity and quality of crops.
3. You started your own company, Plantea, as a graduate student at MIT. What challenges did you face along the way, and how did you overcome them?
When we started Plantea we managed to raise a substantial amount of non-dilutive funding through grants and accelerators, which I am deeply thankful for. The key challenge we faced was that urban farms, our beachhead market at the time, are often low-margin, risk-adverse businesses looking for turnkey solutions that yield benefits quickly. Urban farms are also very diverse in terms of technology levels, crop types, ownership models and other factors. The team quickly realized that to be successful we needed to return to the lab to do more product development work and articulate our value proposition to target segments within urban farms.
4. What are some implications of your work and who will benefit from the technology?
At a broader level, our work will hopefully help urban farms move the needle by improving the productivity and nutritional quality of their crops. By interfacing plants with nanoparticles, we hope to introduce non-native functions like soil or groundwater monitoring, communicating information to external devices.
Our work will also improve our understanding of how plant respond to environmental factors. For example, our technology will allow for real-time persistent monitoring of stomatal function to show exactly how stomata respond to factors like soil, water and light.
This will then benefit the broader society, in terms of growing more food with fewer resources. For a land-scarce and resource-constrained nation such as Singapore, this could be particularly relevant.
5. How do you see your research evolving in the next decade?
Ultimately, for sensors to be useful, the data obtained must be translated into beneficial interventions. One key area of research is better integrating this sensor-actuator cycle and quantifying its benefits. Further, with climate change, topics such as how plants react to heat stress, how the environment may undergo desertification and impact soil microbiomes, would also become more relevant.
An additional area that I find to be quite exciting is how nanotechnology may enable plants to be engineered with favorable traits. For instance, some in the nanotechnology community have started to look at how genes can be delivered into plant cells and organelles through rationally designed nanocarriers. My current work assesses whether it is feasible to implement this in practice, and what the benefits of successfully integrating nanotechnology into future farming practices could be for both traditional and urban agriculture.