Forget bomb-sniffing dogs, we can now use spinach to detect explosives. Scientists have implanted the leafy greens with tiny tubes that let them sense when an explosive is nearby and even alert someone by email.
This is all part of the field of "plant nanobionics," which is about embedding plants with tiny nanomaterials that basically give them superpowers. In today’s study, published in the journal Nature Materials, MIT researchers put sensors into the part of the spinach leaf where photosynthesis happens. These sensors can detect a chemical that is often in landmines and other explosives: nitroaromatic compounds.
For this process to actually work, the spinach plant has to absorb the chemicals through its roots. That happens if the nitroaromatic compounds are in the groundwater. From the roots, the chemicals travel to the leaves in about 10 minutes, where they activate the plant’s sensors.
These sensors emit a fluorescent signal that can be seen from an infrared camera nearby. This camera is hooked to a tiny computer, so it can send an email alerting someone about this change.
This same technique can be used with almost any living plant, researchers say. The same team has also programmed spinach to pick up the chemical dopamine. In the future, researchers could "teach" plants and trees to warn us if there are any pollutants nearby. It could be much more convenient than installing complicated manual sensors, especially because plants are everywhere around us — including in your backyard or lining up your city streets.