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Plants Can Now Be Used to Detect Explosives

November 3rd 2016

Leaf

Scientists at MIT have successfully bioengineered spinach to wilt if explosive material is detected in groundwater, according to a paper put out in the prestigious Journal of Nature Materials.

The research paper is titled “Nitroaromatic detection and infrared communication from wild-type plants using plant nanobionics.”

Here, we demonstrate that living spinach plants (Spinacia oleracea) can be engineered to serve as self-powered pre-concentrators and autosamplers of analytes in ambient groundwater and as infrared communication platforms that can send information to a smartphone,” the paper’s authors said their introduction.

As the plant absorbs water from the ground it will also absorb the explosive material. Thanks to deliberately created adaptations in the plant’s leaves, the plant will wilt in response to the presence of the explosive compounds.

Fixed sensors nearby will monitor the spinach using infrared technology and will pick up on the change in the plant.  

The project was funded by DARPA, the body of the U.S. military in charge of research and development. It has an annual budget of nearly $3 billion and funds a vast array of different technologies that either have or could potentially have military application.

Their research is groundbreaking, and the scientists behind the project home predict that the breakthrough will lead to a variety of uses for plants which can detect dangerous materials.

The nanobionic approach creates a new class of functional plant nanomaterial hybrids that opens the door to the use of wild-type plants for infrared communication in wide areas, and real-time monitoring of environments such as cities, crop fields, high-security facilities, and homes,” the paper concludes.

Since the spinach detects explosives in groundwater it would only be useful in certain circumstances. It is unknown when, if ever, bomb detecting spinach would be ready to be planted and used.


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