Imagine a future where you walk into an airport or government building and you don’t have to wait in long lines to be scanned for bombs and other heavy-duty weaponry. Instead, intelligent vegetation is genetically trained to react to the presence of explosives.
With the help of the Department of Defense and funding from the Pentagon’s research branch, DARPA, June Medford, a biologist at Colorado State University, has finally figured out a way to make living plants a tool to fight terrorism. But unlike using the plants as vehicles for chemical warfare or anything of that sort, Medford found a way to alter the plant’s DNA to turn them into bomb detectors.
“Plants can’t run and hide,” says Medford. “If a bug comes by, it has to respond to it. And it already has the infrastructure to respond.”
Medford and her team designed a computer model that breaks down a plant’s DNA and tells them exactly what a plant responds to and how that response will be expressed. From that point they can use the computer model to change what stimulus causes the response and how it is expressed and then insert that newly alerted DNA back into the plant.
What this means is that Medford can basically design a computer model to make the plant look for any given chemical and control how the plant will respond.
A real-life example of this, one that has already been tested in labs, is that the plant’s altered DNA makes it scan for the chemical signature of TNT, and the moment it picks up hints of TNT in the air the entire plant instantly turns white.
What makes this technology so amazing is that the plant’s DNA can be programed to scan for almost everything, and even color code certain responses to better alert the authorities of what is detected.
There is a big problem that Medford brought up, however. It would not be likely that the plants would react to ammonium nitrate, a common chemical used for homemade bombs in Afghanistan, seeing as it is also found in fertilizer.
As cool as this sounds, there are some flaws in this method of detection. But, it is still a great security addition and would be much cheaper to plant some of these explosive detectors in airports instead of paying thousands of dollars for the scanners that the TSA currently uses.