Someday, that potted palm in your living room might go from green to white, alerting you to a variety of nasty contaminants in the air, perhaps even explosives.
The stuff of science fiction you say? Not so, says a Colorado State University biologist whose research is funded in part by Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T), as well as by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Office of Naval Research (ONR), and others.
Dr. June Medford and her team in the Department of Biology at Colorado State have shown that plants can serve as highly specific sentries for environmental pollutants and explosives. She's enabled a computer-designed detection trait to work in plants. How? By rewiring the plant's natural signaling process so that a detection of the bad stuff results in the loss of green color.
Based on research so far, Medford says the detection abilities of some plants (tobacco is an example) are similar to, or even better, than those of a dog's snout, long the hallmark of a good detector. Best of all, the training time is nothing compared to that of a dog.
"The idea comes directly from nature," Medford said. "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, by modifying the way the plant's proteins process chlorophyll. Our system, with improvements, may allow plants to serve as a simple and inexpensive means to monitor human surroundings for substances such as pollutants, explosives, or chemical agents."
The detection traits could be used in any plant and could detect multiple pollutants at once changes that can also be detected by satellite. While visible change in the plant is apparent after a day, the reaction can be remotely sensed with
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US Department of Homeland Security - Science and Technology