Scientists have developed spinach plants which alert researchers if explosives are present
MDetecting explosives is something which researchers are always seeking to do in more efficient and accurate ways. We have seen this in the computer processor capable of detecting both cancer cells and explosives, and the unique biologically engineered bacteria that glows when near explosives. Researchers at MIT have proven that spinach is more than just a superfood by creating spinach plants which warn about the presence of explosives.
In a unique process, researchers have been able to create plants capable of communicating with them. In order to achieve this result, engineers at MIT embedded spinach leaves with carbon nanotubes, which allow the plants to gather information about their surroundings. The tubes were embedded via a process known as vascular infusion. This involves inserting the sensors into the underside of the leaf, since this is where most photosynthesis takes place. The spinach plants use these nanotube sensors to collect data and then send it wirelessly to a mobile device. One of the first examples of engineering electronic systems into plants this is known as plant nanobionics. The nanotube sensors detect specific chemicals in the surrounding water called nitroaromatics, which are typically found in explosive material.
Researchers shine lasers on to the leaves, which means that upon detecting this chemical, the nanotubes emit a fluorescent alert which is read by an infrared camera. By connecting the camera to a computer, the user will be alerted by email if explosives are present. Moreover, the infrared signals could, in theory, be directly detected by a smartphone by removing the device’s infrared filter. The plants take a mere ten minutes to detect if the water in their vicinity contains these chemicals present in explosives, and researchers are working to increase the distance from which they can receive signals – it is currently just one meter.
Perhaps this technology could be employed widely to warn people about explosives and increase the safety of people living in war zones. How could the design be improved or developed to help in other situations, perhaps detecting the presence of other dangerous substances? Is this just the beginning of the human engineering of plants as a way to communicate with them?