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Watch MIT Researchers Train Spinach Leaves to Be Bomb-Detectors

The enhanced plants sent email alerts about the dangerous substances they flagged.

by Becky Ferreira
Nov 2 2016, 4:16pm

Image: Christine Daniloff/MIT

The health benefits of spinach are widely known, thanks in no small part to the frequent spinach-induced hulk-outs of Popeye the Sailor Man. But according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), this nutritious leafy vegetable doesn't just ward off disease. It can also sniff out explosives.

The finding appears in Nature Materials, and is also featured in this new video from MIT.

Plant-to-human communication. Video: MIT/YouTube

The research team, led by MIT professor of chemical engineering Michael Strano, demonstrated that spinach plants wired with nanosensors can detect nitroaromatics—hazardous substances used in landmines and other explosives—in their groundwater. The idea is to harness plants' extreme sensitivity to their environment by giving them a way to alert environmental officials to contaminants in their water, soil, and air.

To that end, the team even showed that plants outfitted with simple processing systems could fire off email alerts about the presence of explosive material. That's right: Plants send emails now. They'll probably be on Twitter soon. You heard it here first.

In a statement, Strano called the experiment "a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier." As a leader in the field of plant nanobiotics, he hopes to see more efforts to integrate nanotechnological platforms into plants so that they can perform increasingly complex functions.

In the case of the bomb-detecting spinach, the sample plants' leaves were embedded with extremely tiny carbon nanotubes, each thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair.

READ MORE: Plants Are So Awesome, Their Roots Can Sense Light Underground

Sensors in the tubes were programmed to react to nitroaromatics by altering the fluorescence of polymers within the leaves, so that they emitted near-infrared light. These signals were read by shining laser beams on the leaves and letting a simple computer, like the team's $35 Raspberry Pi, pick them up and send along email updates about it.

"This setup could be replaced by a cell phone and the right kind of camera," Strano said. "It's just the infrared filter that would stop you from using your cell phone."

The platform has potential applications beyond flagging explosive materials. With a few tweaks, the same system could be used to detect a range of different pollutants, or provide early warning of droughts and other environmental trends.

"Plants are very environmentally responsive," Strano pointed out. "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."

Not to mention, this is an awesome premise for a Batman V. Poison Ivy movie. Again, you heard it here first.

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