Cristina Sabliov was charged with finding a way to apply nanotechnology to agriculture.

Sabliov, a scientist in the LSU AgCenter Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, uses nanotechnology to develop better delivery systems for antioxidants and nutraceuticals.

While there are many potential applications of nanotechnology, Sabliov said food agriculture was not one that she had considered for her research program.

So far, nanotechnology studies in her laboratory have been done on just fungi and animals.

The scientist is working with entomologist Jeff Davis to see if nanotechnology can also be used to deliver fungicides, insecticides or other chemicals of interest to agriculture, specifically soybeans.

“In general when we apply these insecticides, pesticides and fertilizer to plants, we don’t target it to anything,” Sabliov said. “We just spray it out in large quantities.”

With spraying come environmental and economic issues. Spraying can cause problems such as runoff and herbicide drift. The spray can wash away, making it ineffective. Also chemicals are expensive, and farmers may be using more than necessary than if they could target the spray.

Sabliov is working on a way to have the nanoparticles electrically charged so they will be attracted to the plants and the spray would be less likely to end up somewhere else.

“Can we make these particles stick to the leaves so even if it rains, they will stay there releasing their load over time or can we spray in the soil and will the plants pick up the particles in the soil?” Sabliov said.

The first step for Sabliov is to learn how nanoparticles interact with plants. Then she will look for certain applications such as controlling insects or weeds.  She is looking at root interaction, leaf interaction and nematode interaction.

Sabliov designed a method to make polymeric nanoparticles of varying properties. She used a fluorescent chemical compound to track the nanoparticles within the plant.

Soybean plants in Davis’ lab were sprayed with particles. After seven days, Sabliov collected leaves from the plants. Using a special microscope, she looked for red fluorescence in the leaves. Sabliov could see the particles were there, but she couldn’t quantify them.

“This year’s plan is to see how much of the particles are attached to the leaf,” Sabliov said.

One issue she faces is when a chemical is sprayed, it is hard to know how much of the material is actually on the plant and how much lands on other surfaces.

To look at root interaction, Davis poured a particle suspension onto the soil and then covered the plant roots. Sabliov took slices of the roots to see how the particles moved through the plant and again saw evidence of movement.

Sabliov tried a similar experiment with worms.  The worms were allowed to feed on a particle solution. She said nanoparticles were not detected in the worms because they may have passed through the gut quickly. Dissections will be attempted next.

“We don’t know how much they ate, and it’s not so easy to track the fluorescent compound in the worm as it is in the plant,” she said.

These studies can help Sabliov and Davis understand how the nanoparticles interact with the plant and help them identify applications down the road.

“There are lots of problems we can solve,” Sabliov said. “But each is challenging in its own way, and we can’t attack them all at the same time. We have to do it one at a time.”

Sabliov said these nanoparticles could present their own safety issues. She also wants to see if nanoparticles, which are biodegradable, pose a threat to the environment.

“If you apply these particles in large amounts, are you solving a problem but creating a bigger one?” she asked. “I think we must do studies to see if the efficacy of the delivery system helps your problems. And then in parallel, do studies of their safety to answer this question.”

The Louisiana Soybean and Grain Research and Promotion Board is funding this project.