Quirks & Quarks

Spinach plants have the power to detect landmines

Plant 'nanobionics' capitalize on plants' exquisite chemical sensitivity

Scientists have taken advantage of the fact that plants are constantly analyzing their surroundings, especially soil, and responding accordingly.  

Chemical engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - including Dr. Michael Strano - experimented by inserting carbon nanotubes into the vascular system of spinach plants.  The purpose of the so-called 'plant nanobionics' was to detect specific chemicals in the soil, in this case nitroaromatics, chemical compounds associated with landmines and other explosives.  

When the chemical is detected, the nanotube responds with an infrared signal that can be sent to a computer or even a smartphone for further analysis.  It is hoped that in the future chemical sensing plants could be used for defence purposes including the monitoring of public spaces.  

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