They trained rats, bees and even dolphins to snatch landmines, but scientists are now turning their attention to more potential bomb-detecting allies: spinach.
Already famous for its health benefits, the couch could soon add more years to people’s lives to uncover hidden explosives and avoid casualties. This is thanks to the work of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who used a technique called vascular infusion to introduce carbon nanotubes into plant leaves.
These nanotubes specifically designed to interact with a chemical compound known as nitroaromatics used in explosive devices. In their experiment – which described in the journal Nature Materials – the researchers focused on a nitroaromatics called picric acid.
As the acid is absorbed from the groundwater by the roots of the plant, it transferred to the mesophyll layer at the base of the leaf, where most photosynthesis occurs and where nanotubes wait to detect it.
When the researchers lit a laser on these nanotubes, they emitted a fluorescent signal to indicate that nitroaromatics had detected. This signal can seen using an infrared camera, which warns scientists via email.
The integration of electronic systems into plants has called “plant nanotubes”, and study co-author Michael Strano described his team’s approach as “an innovative demonstration of how we have overcome barriers to plant/ human communication.”
Initially, research done to see if wild plants could be bioengineered to detect explosives, but scientists now believe that nanotech can be taken further, where it is still in the field, to warn researchers about plant contamination and other Potential environmental problems.
Overall, it takes about 10 minutes for nitroaromatics to reach the leaves of a tree after being pulled from the groundwater, and some animals may be able to extract explosive chemicals more quickly, Strano said, adding that “plants are very good chemical analysts.”
“They have an extensive root network in the soil, constantly sampling groundwater and finding ways to get self-power to transport that water to the leaves,” he said. When this process is exacerbated, there is less pain, suffering, and confusion.