These Bionic Spinach Plants Can Detect Explosive Materials

Posted: Nov 1 2016, 12:10am CDT | by , Updated: Nov 1 2016, 11:47pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 
These Bionic Spinach Plants Can Detect Explosive Materials
Plants embedded with carbon nanotubes could detect explosives as well as pollutants. Credit:Juan Pablo Giraldo/UCR

Using nanotechnology, scientists have transfomed plants into explosives detectors.

Scientists have turned spinach plants into natural bomb detectors.

By attaching carbon nanotubes into leaves, MIT researchers have transformed spinach plants into sensors that can detect explosive materials and store all the information in a convenient smartphone-like device.

This is the first time when plants have been modified for such an unorthodox use. Combining nanotechnology with plants could be the future of environmental monitoring and explosion detection.

“The goal of plant nanobionics is to introduce nanoparticles into the plant to give it non-native functions.” Michael Strano, leader of the research team and Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT said.

Plants are natural chemical analytic. They have an extensive root network in the soil which constantly collects and transports groundwater up into the leaves. Since plants already take a lot of information from their surrounding, the trait makes them well-suited for monitoring the environment as well.

In the new research, scientists have embedded tiny sensors into the leaves of spinach plants. These sensors allow them to detect chemical compounds known as nitroaromatics, which are often used in landmines and other explosives. When a plant detects the presence of one of these chemicals through natural groundwater sampling, carbon nanotubes embedded in the plant leaves emit a signal that can be read with an infrared camera. Then, the camera attached to a handheld device similar to a smartphone will wirelessly transmit the information to the user. If there are any explosive molecules in the groundwater, it will take about 10 minutes for the plant to detect them and send single to the relevant person.

“These sensors give real-time information from the plant. It is almost like having the plant talk to us about the environment they are in.” Min Hao Wong, a researcher involved in the study said.

The modified plants can also prove helpful in the field of agriculture and in detection of harmful chemicals and pollutants.

“Plants are very environmentally responsive,” said Strano. “They know that there is going to be a drought long before we do. They can detect small changes in the properties of soil and water potential. If we tap into those chemical signaling pathways, there is a wealth of information to access.”

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