Will Bomb-Sniffing Plants Guard the Airports of the Future?

By Patrick Morgan | January 27, 2011 1:27 pm

The future looks green, even for bomb-detection squads: Instead of a bomb-sniffing dog at the end of a policeman’s leash, you could soon have a bomb-sniffing petunia. Scientists are now designing plants that are able to detect trace amounts of airborne TNT.

Funded in part by the Department of Defense and Homeland Security, scientists from Colorado State University reported this week that plants can be modified to change color when they detect TNT. According to their study published in the journal PLoS One, these plants’ leaves lose their chlorophyll when exposed to TNT, changing from green to white.

“It had to be simple, something your mom could recognize,” said June Medford, a professor of biology at Colorado State, referring to the idea of linking a plant’s chemical response to its color, visible to the naked eye. [New York Times]

The bomb-sniffing plants can detect much lower traces of TNT–about one-hundredth the amount–than their four-pawed co-workers can. But a changing leaf color isn’t quite as obvious as a dog’s bark, especially if you’re colorblind. TNT-detecting plants have yet another hurdle to cross before you’ll see them on the streets:

“Right now, response time is in the order of hours,” said Linda Chrisey, a program manager at the Office of Naval Research, which hopes to use the technology to help protect troops from improvised explosive devices…. Practical application, she said, requires a signal within minutes, and a natural reset system back to healthy green in fairly short order. [New York Times]

Researchers hope to have clear-signaling and fast-acting bomb-detecting plants ready for duty within the next three to seven years. Until then, our top bomb-sniffers still have fur, play fetch, and appreciate a good belly-rub.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!
  • Colleen

    I wonder what inspired scientists to turn to plants as potential bomb-detectors in the fist place; have plants been used to detect airborne traces of chemicals before? I also wonder whether they could develop a new species capable of determining when food is on the verge of exploding in the microwave– that would be highly useful for me on a daily basis. :)

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