Just plant some spinach atop a minefield and reap the answers.
Timothy Revell

New Scientist
2 Nov 2016 - 11:44 AM  UPDATED 2 Nov 2016 - 11:47 AM

There’s something odd in the water – a slight taste of a landmine nearby. You won’t notice it, but nanotech-enhanced spinach plants certainly can.

A group of MIT engineers led by Michael Strano has converted ordinary spinach plants into biological bomb detectors.

The engineers implanted customised carbon nanotubes into the leaves of living plants to turn them into a real-time monitoring system for explosive molecules.

When the plants suck water from the ground into the leaves, the carbon nanotubes can detect the presence of any nitroaromatics – chemical compounds often found in explosives such as landmines. When the researchers shine a laser on the nanotubes, they emit a fluorescent signal if they pick up nitroaromatics. This signal can be detected by an infrared camera up to a metre away.

Mine finder

The research, published in Nature Materials, has yet to be tested for real, but eventually it could be possible to sow seeds across a site suspected of containing landmines and use the plant detection system to locate them.

This isn’t the first time that plants have been tweaked using nanotechnology. Strano’s research group has used similar techniques to improve plants’ photosynthesis ability and to develop detectors for hydrogen peroxide, TNT, and the nerve gas sarin.

Plants are well suited to spotting different chemical compounds in ground water as they naturally develop extensive root networks, enabling them to sample a large area of soil. The latest research is “pushing the interaction of nanoparticles with biological systems,” says Matthew Baker from the University of Strathclyde.

He says one next possible step will be dispense with the infrared sensor. Other research has genetically modified plants so that they stop producing chlorophyll and change colour when exposed to certain substances in the ground, so the detectors need no extra technology.

Journal reference: Nature materialsDOI: 10.1038/nmat4771

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