Engineered plants detect bombs and environmental contaminants

Biologists are engineering plants to detect biological and chemical weapons by changing color in the presence of contaminants.

Dogs and bees have been used to identify bombs and environmental threats. Now researchers have discovered that engineered plants are just as effective at detecting explosives and other contaminants.

Not only could the plants be used as highly specific detectors to help tighten airport security, it could help sniff out pollutants in private places like homes or in more public spaces like malls.

Biologist June Medford at Colorado State University figured out the detection trait that can change the signaling process in plants.

Medford said in a statement:

The idea to make detector plants comes directly from nature. Plants can’t run or hide from threats, so they’ve developed sophisticated systems to detect and respond to their environment. We’ve ‘taught’ plants how to detect things we’re interested in and respond in a way anyone can see, to tell us there is something nasty around.

Using computers to redesign proteins, the researcher made the receptors smart enough to identify pollutants and contaminants. When the environmental threat is nearby, a switch is turned on in the plant and it changes color from green to white. And once the pollutant is removed, the plants turns green again.

For wide spread monitoring, the color changes could be detected by a satellite.

But don't expect to see bomb-detecting plants at airports anytime soon. These plants need hours to identify  a bomb. Though Medford says she's working on making plants with a much faster response time.

Wired points out:

Eventually, Medford expects to bring the bomb-detecting plants to market through genetically modified seedlings. Whatever it costs, it’s got to be less than the $100,000 to $200,000 that a backscatter “junk scanner” can run.

The study was published in the journal PLoS One.

Related on SmartPlanet:

This post was originally published on