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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Ultra-rare albino redwood trees completely lack the green pigment chlorophyll, which they need to live (by photosynthesizing nutrients from light). These plants are literally vampires. They are pale (everwhite instead of evergreen), and they survive by sucking the life from other trees.
These vampires remain attached to the roots of their healthy, normal, parent trees (coastal redwoods can reproduce asexually by sprouting new shoots from roots or stumps), and survive by sucking energy from them. They can keep this up for a century. Historian Sandy Lyndon explained the phenomenon to KQED:
“Albinism is a genetic mutation that prevents cells from producing pigment. In humans and other animals, albinism is not necessarily such a big deal. But albino plants are unable to do the very thing that makes a plant a plant. Without chlorophyll, they can’t photosynthesize, meaning they can’t convert sunlight into energy. The only reason that albino redwoods survive at all is that they are connected at the root to a parent tree from which they will suck energy for their entire lives.”
Doctors recently found a surprising growth in Ron Sveden’s lung: a pea plant.
Sveden, a 75-year-old man from Massachusetts reportedly suffered from emphysema for months. He worried when he met with New York City pulmonologist Len Horovitz that he might have lung cancer. Instead, X-rays revealed a pea plant, the BBC reports, which Sveden estimates grew to around half an inch.
Dr. Horovitz says that the lung’s warmth and moisture made the perfect pea habitat and suspects a pea seed went down the wrong way. He told AOL Health:
“That can definitely happen. This did not surprise me…. You can inhale a seed of a plant or sprouting plant and it can cause bronchial obstruction. I’ve pulled food out of people’s lungs before.”
Still, given the popularity of this story, we’re guessing lung gardening is pretty rare. As Sveden says in the ABC News video above, he’s not sure how big a lung-born pea plant can grow:
“Whether this would have gone full-term and I’d be working for the Jolly Green Giant, I don’t know.”
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At the the Houston Museum of Natural Science thousands of visitors are lining up for the smell of rotting bodies. They want a look at a five-foot-tall plant affectionately called the “corpse flower,” or more specifically, Lois. The flower will bloom for the first time in seven years and release its stench for an expected three days.
The flower, native to Indonesia, will be the 29th to bloom in the United States; another bloomed last summer at San Francisco State University. Sporting buttons that say “Bring on the Funk” and “Amorphophallus titanum (Latin for AWESOME),” 4,000 to 5,000 visitors a day have been coming to the Houston museum to sniff, Reuters reports. In its pre-bloom phase, it smells a bit like rotting pumpkins–which is disappointing to museum visitors with a nose for rancid corpses, museum spokeswoman Latha Thomas told Reuters.
“They want to smell the flower. I think that’s why they keep coming back over and over because they are so excited about smelling it.”
The AP reports that not everyone is excited. Jessica Zabala has booked the museum for her wedding this week and is hoping the flower doesn’t foul up her ceremony.
The museum has provided a live webcam, for those who want to see without smelling.
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The plant is a member of the carrot or parsley family, and as described in a brochure (pdf) from the Michigan Department of Agriculture, 20th century gardeners cultivated the giant for its impressive size and for its stem’s purple coloring. But it soon broke out of gardens and arboretums, its seeds finding soil outside of captivity.
Besides Canada, the plant has also appeared in the northern United States (both east and west) and as far south as Maryland. Ontario officials are concerned with the plants’ continuing spread–it was most recently sighted in Renfrew County–and have urged anyone who spots it to contact them immediately.
Giant Hogweed can grow to almost twenty feet tall and five feet wide, and each plant can produce tens of thousands of seeds. Sap on your skin can give you ugly blisters, the CBC reports, and sap in your eyes could cause blindness.
Jeff Muzzi, manager of forestry services for Renfrew County, told the CBC that, despite its heft, the weed is a stealthy attacker.
“[Exposure] could be inadvertent,” Muzzi said. “You might not even know it’s here, [just] walk into it and happen to break a leaf. The next thing you know, you’ve got these nasty burns.”
Renfrew County officials are attempting to thwart the toxic plant’s leafy grip by distributing pamphlet warnings and, as the CBC reports, through “weed-whacking campaigns.”
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Images: Wikimedia, Michigan Department of Agriculture
The tobacco plant is considered a villain of the plant world because of the harmful effects of smoking it. But now a genetically engineered tobacco plant is enjoying a moment of redemption, as scientists have discovered that tweaking a certain gene in one tobacco plant strain allows the plant to produce antibodies that disarm toxic pond scum.
The pond scum in question is microcystin-LR (MC-LR), which makes water unsafe for drinking, swimming and fishing in many parts of the world. Upon ingestion it can cause serious liver damage, with some studies indicating a connection to causing liver and colorectal cancers.