In a proof-of-concept that showcases the potential flexibility of plants, scientists at MIT have given spinach the ability to detect land mines.
In their findings published in the journal Nature Materials, the scientists describe their experiment as one of the first demonstrations of “plant nanobionics,” or engineering electronic systems into plants. The goal of the experiment was to give a plant “non-native” functions, says research team leader Michael Strano in a statement.
In this case, they engineered spinach plants to detect nitroaromatic chemical compounds, regularly used in land mines and explosives. If a nitroarmoatic compound is in the groundwater that the spinach plant naturally absorbs, its leaves will begin to give off a fluorescent signal that can be read in with an infrared camera.
Unless you’re planting a garden in a demilitarized zone, though, this doesn’t seem to have much practical use. Strano calls it a “novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier,” and believes that plants nanobiotics could spread to warning about pollutants in an area or other poor environmental conditions.