Scientists Have Created Bomb-Detecting Super-Spinach

Brilliance | Dec. 14, 2017

Spinach is certainly a godsend for Popeye's muscles, but that's probably the extent of its ability to help out in a fight. That is, unless it's blessed with the kind of nanotechnology MIT researchers are using.

To demonstrate the possibilities of a new field called "plant nanobionics," scientists embedded the leaves of spinach plants with carbon nanotubes that are capable of detecting nitroaromatics—compounds that are often used in landmines and other explosives. The plant takes in groundwater as a natural daily function, so if those compounds are present in the water, the plant will know about it. Within 10 minutes, the carbon nanotubes will emit a fluorescent signal. Infrared cameras pick up that signal and broadcast it to a smartphone-like device, which sends an email to actual humans so they can take whatever measures are necessary.

Why plants? Because they're natural chemistry labs. Their extensive root network is constantly sampling the groundwater, and they have a built-in system for bringing that water up into their leaves. Lead researcher Michael Strano told MIT News, "Plants are very environmentally responsive. 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." The same MIT scientists have already turned other plants into nitric oxide sensors and more still that can detect dopamine, and hope that future projects yield plants that can detect droughts or terrorism-related activity. Learn more about the power of plants in the videos below.

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