Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has engineered spinach to be fully capable of finding unexploded land mines and buried munitions.
Scientists have injected nanoparticles and carbon nanotubes (tiny cylinders of carbon) into the plant, where the information can be monitored on a handheld device.
To tell if there are any threats in the area, scientists can wet the plants and shine a laser, such as one on their cell phone with the infrared censor disabled or small laptop onto the plant.
By doing so, they can tell immediately if there is a problem in the area and work to disarm the threat.
The work was recently published in the journal Nature Materials.
Michael Strano, of MIT stated:
“Our paper outlines how one could engineer plants like this to detect virtually anything. The plants could be use for defence applications, but also to monitor public spaces for terrorism related activities, since we show both water and airborne detection. Such plants could be used to monitor groundwater seepage from buried munitions or waste that contains nitro-aromatics.”
The same team at MIT has also programmed plants to detect the chemical dopamine.
Teaching plants to tell whether or not a chemical threat is nearby would be more convenient than installing cameras and other devices.
This is largely because it is both cheaper and plant life is more abundant.
As plant life is already in all areas of where humans live, including crowded urban spaces, the technology could prove to be incredibly convenient.
Researchers say that this same technique could be used in the future on any living plant.
Currently, the system needs a bit of tweaking before it can be practical. The infrared signals can only be detected one meter, or 3.3 feet away, meaning this may not be far enough away to detect an unexploded landmine. Scientists, however, have stated that they may be capable of detecting the light from further away, but have not yet tested it as such.
Bogdan Dragnea, a professor of chemistry at Indiana University who did not participate in the study, stated of the findings:
“A potential caveat is related to possible clearance, and/or biofouling of the transducer by the plant, and the possibility of false positives, but presumably such issues will be addressed further along the road.”