Machine learning can reduce worry about nanoparticles in food

While crop yield has achieved a substantial boost from nanotechnology in recent years, alarms over the health risks posed by nanoparticles within fresh produce and grains have also increased. In particular, nanoparticles entering the soil through irrigation, fertilizers and other sources have raised concerns about whether plants absorb these minute particles enough to cause toxicity.

Nanoparticles are a burgeoning trend in several fields, including medicine, consumer products and agriculture. Depending on the type of nanoparticle, some have favorable surface properties, charge and magnetism, among other features. These qualities make them ideal for a number of applications. For example, in agriculture, nanoparticles may be used as antimicrobials to protect plants from pathogens. Alternatively, they can be used to bind to fertilizers or insecticides and then programmed for slow release to increase plant absorption.

These agriculture practices and others, like irrigation, can cause nanoparticles to accumulate in the soil. However, with the different types of nanoparticles that could exist in the ground and a staggeringly large number of terrestrial plant species, including food crops, it is not clearly known if certain properties of nanoparticles make them more likely to be absorbed by some plant species than others.

They first trained these algorithms on a database created from past research on different metallic nanoparticles and the specific plants in which they accumulated. In particular, their database contained the size, shape and other characteristics of different nanoparticles, along with information on how much of these particles were absorbed from soil or nutrient-enriched water into the plant body.

Once trained, their machine learning algorithms could correctly predict the likelihood of a given metallic nanoparticle to accumulate in a plant species. Also, their algorithms revealed that when plants are in a nutrient-enriched or hydroponic solution, the chemical makeup of the metallic nanoparticle determines the propensity of accumulation in the roots and shoots. But if plants are grown in soil, the contents of organic matter and the clay in soil are key to nanoparticle uptake.

Xiaoxuan Wang et al, Prediction of Plant Uptake and Translocation of Engineered Metallic Nanoparticles by Machine Learning, Environmental Science & Technology (2021). DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.1c01603

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