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Scientists Just Figured Out How to Turn Spinach Into a Bomb Detector

New research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows how the spinach plant can be transformed into a device for detecting buried munitions.
Phoebe Hurst
London, GB

We've been hearing about the health benefits of spinach since the dawn of time. If it wasn't your mum sneaking the green stuff into your sandwiches, it was Jamie Oliver infiltrating your school lunches with it or Popeye insisting that canned gloop equals muscles. Alright, guys, we get it. Spinach is good for you.

And now, it seems the leafy green may have abilities beyond iron count and contributing to your five-a-day. Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have figured out how to transform the spinach plant into a bomb detector.


Take that, kale.

READ MORE: Why You Should Still Rinse That Pre-Washed Lettuce

To create their explosive-signalling salad, MIT engineers embedded tiny cylinders of carbon into the leaves of spinach plants. With these carbon nanotubes within their leaves, the plants could detect nitro-aromatics, the chemical compound found in landmines and buried munitions.

Writing in the Nature Materials journal, the MIT researchers explained that when nitro-aromatics are present in groundwater, the carbon-embedded spinach leaves emit a fluorescent light. This light can be read by an infrared camera and relayed back to a computer to signal the presence of hidden munitions.

In a press release on the new research, MIT researchers explained that plants are ideally suited to monitoring environments for potential threats, as they naturally take in information on their surroundings.

Michael Strano, lead researcher, explained: "Plants are very good analytical chemists. They have an extensive root network in the soil, are constantly sampling groundwater, and have a way to self-power the transport of that water up into the leaves."

It's not the first time plants' "analytical" powers have been harnessed by researchers. Two years ago, Strano lead another team in an experiment to enhance plants' photosynthesis abilities, turning them into sensors for nitric oxide.

Speaking to the BBC, Strano said that the findings from the latest spinach leaf study could be used to protect public safety.

READ MORE: Eating Spinach Can Make You Crave Pizza Less

He said: "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."

MIT researchers are now working to increase the distance that the spinach plant is able to pick up the presence of nitro-aromatics. In the meantime, maybe we will have that goat cheese salad—and with extra spinach leaves, too.