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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The “Infinity Chilli,” a 1,176,182 on the Scoville scale, may be the world’s hottest chili pepper. We note the previous champ, bhut jolokia, which comes in at 1,041,427, was used to ward off elephants. The Scoville scale of hotness measures a chili’s amount of capsaicin, the nerve-searing chemical responsible for five-alarm fires in your mouth.
We looked around to see if we could find a Scoville score for the insanity pepper that Homer Simpson tangled with in one of the best Simpsons episodes of all time, “The Mysterious Voyage of Homer.” We couldn’t find that, but we did find clips of Homer’s first contact with the deadly chili, and his subsequent freak out.
Back to the infinity vegetable: Chili experts at Warwick University have run the numbers, The Register reports, via a hot chili ranking system that calls for neutralizing the peppers altogether. Using an alcohol solution, testers must first extract the pepper’s capsaicinoids, the plant’s defense chemicals–which have been studied as a potential cancer treatment and have been found to kill fungi. Then the experts gradually add a sugar solution until (usually three of five) tasters just barely get a tingle. For reference, the friendly sweet pepper ranks a zero on the scale and the mild Jalapeño between 2,500 and 5,000.
If that sounds a little too subjective for your taste, the American Spice Trade Association uses high performance liquid chromatography to get the exact breakdown of the chemicals in a spice sample and reports their results in “ASTA pungency units.”
The chili’s grower, a UK company called Fire Foods, produces an Infinity Chilli Sauce that the website describes as both terrifying and hard to come by:
We are only making this sauce in small batches, as and when the chillis ripen and as and when i have the courage!!!
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In 2007, Canadian researchers amazed us with the discovery that plants can distinguish whether nearby plants are their siblings —in other words, if they’ve grown from seeds from the same source.
Now, University of Delaware professor Harsh Bais has identified just how plants do this: by secreting chemical signals to other plants.
Plants grow more horizontal roots when they’re in the presence of “strangers,” better enabling them to compete for necessary nutrients. However, when plants are near their “siblings,” they grew fewer roots—leaving researchers to think that plants don’t need to grow as many roots to survive when they know they’re among “kin.”
In a series of experiments, the researchers exposed young seedlings of Arabidopsis thaliana to the root secretions from their “siblings” as well as to those of “strangers.” When exposed to unfamiliar root secretions, the test plants grew more roots. However, when the plants were around kin, they “knew” that they would be competing for nutrients, so their roots didn’t grow as much. Additionally, when the researchers treated the first group of plants (the ones next to strangers) with sodium orthovanadate—a chemical that stops secretion but doesn’t stop roots from growing—the plants seemed to loose their sense of “strangers.”
“Plants have no visible sensory markers, and they can’t run away from where they are planted,” Bais says. “It then becomes a search for more complex patterns of recognition…”
Bais says he and his colleagues also have noticed that as sibling plants grow next to each other, their leaves often will touch and intertwine compared to strangers that grow rigidly upright and avoid touching.
The study leaves a lot of unanswered questions that Bais hopes to explore further. How might sibling plants grown in large “monocultures,” such as corn or other major crop plants, be affected?
In a related study, when plants were planted next to “strangers,” their growth was stunted—because all their energy was spent growing more roots, the rest of the plant suffered. Siblings, on the other hand, fared better overall. So like humans, plants often do best when they’re among family.
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Images: flickr/ BlueRidgeKitties
Four French design school students came up with a clever concept: They proposed using a plant system made of sand, reeds, rushes, a mesh filter, water hyacinths and lemnas, and a carbon filter that can be placed underneath the tub to recycle the water used during a shower. After the water goes through eight filtering steps, the contaminants in the water, like shampoo and soap (and your newly-removed dirt), can be turned into tasty, drinkable water.
The Daily Mail reports:
[Designer Jun] Yasumoto, 34, said: “These plants have been proven to be able to remove the chemicals from your shampoo.”
Using a natural filtering principle called phyto-purification, the bathroom becomes a mini-eco-system by recycling and regenerating the wastewater.
The designers put their drawings online—and, not surprisingly, people soon wrote to them and asked how they could purchase the system. But sadly, the concept has not actually been built yet. On the bright side, there are other ways of conserving water in the bathroom—like peeing in the shower.
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Image: flickr/ cool3c
Audrey it’s not—but it’s pretty close. A large meat-eating plant, dubbed the “pitcher plant,” was discovered in 2007 in the Philippines, and the details of the discovery have now been published in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society. And when we say “meat-eating,” we mean it can stomach animals as large as rats.
While you’re probably familiar with the Venus fly trap or other plants that use their sticky surface to attack before closing their leaves on prey, the pitcher plant has a trapping method that’s unique: It relies on its huge base to send insects and other animals hurtling inside.
In 2000, Christian missionaries spotted the new species on Mount Victoria. Seven years later, a British natural history explorer, a botanist, and a German scientist set out to the Philippines on a two month expedition to see if they too, could locate the new species. They discovered the largest carnivorous pitcher plant ever found, called Nepenthes attenboroughii.
BBC News reports:
“The plant is among the largest of all carnivorous plant species and produces spectacular traps as large as other species which catch not only insects, but also rodents as large as rats,” says [Stewart McPherson, natural history explorer at the Red Fern Natural History Productions].
The pitcher plant does not appear to grow in large numbers, but McPherson hopes the remote, inaccessible mountain top location, which as only been climbed a handful of times, will help prevent poachers from reaching it.
In other words, these pitcher plants are unlikely to have any commercial value. So better stick with Venus fly traps if you’re interested in plants for the home.
Image: flickr/ cathy.hennessy
Remember how plants communicated with each other to exact revenge on humans in The Happening? Although the film didn’t exactly thrill critics, the science may have been more accurate than we think. New research indicates that plants that are genetically related can, in fact, distinguish which plants are in their “family,” just like people or animals. In fact, they can even warn relatives of impending danger.
Researchers at UCSD and Kyoto University cut off shoots from sagebrush plants, thereby creating a genetic copy of the parent plant, and re-planted the copies nearby. After damaging the copy the way a natural predator like a grasshopper would, the researchers waited a year, and found that the parent plants suffered 42 percent less herbivore damage than those that grew next to plants that weren’t genetically related. The researchers say this indicates that plants with family members nearby somehow knew to prepare themselves for an herbivore attack, thereby fending off threats more effectively.
Scientists may have been celebrating the new administration since before Obama entered the Oval Office, but he is now an official recipient of one of the greatest honors in science: A species has been named after him. Caloplaca obamae, a newly-discovered lichen species, was found on California’s Santa Rosa Island during a 2007 survey of lichen diversity. Kerry Knudsen, lichen curator at the University of California, found and collected samples of the species during the final weeks of Obama’s campaign, so the lichen expert named the plant “to show my appreciation for the president’s support of science and science education.”
In the age of unmanned missions to the moon, flowers might become the next iconic picture that will “stir enthusiasm for spaceflight.” And Paragon Space Development wants to be the first company to plant said flowers on the moon. Paragon’s CEO, Taber MacCallum, will plant the seeds in a greenhouse that has been designed to block off space radiation and withstand the moon’s extreme temperatures —which can dip to 240 degrees below Fahrenheit (F) at night and rise to 225 degrees F during the day.
Here’s how MacCallum plans to pull off his feat. First, the greenhouse (made of metal-reinforced glass) will hitch a ride on the Odyssey Moon, one of the competitors for the Google Lunar X Prize. When the greenhouse lands on the moon’s surface, the incubated mustard seeds will complete their life cycle, and bloom into six flowers (that’s all there’s room for). While it would take two weeks for a mustard seed to blossom into a flower on earth, it’ll take just a single lunar day for the flower to bud on the moon.
Ok, for anyone not on Twitter, it’s time to reevaluate: These days, even plants are doing it. And successfully, too—Pothos has 2,300 followers, and when it tweets, it almost always gets what it wants.
Granted, all it wants is water, but when plant owners are forgetful or just don’t have a green thumb, their green friends often go thirsty. The solution? Botanicalls, a device that sends wireless signals to Twitter. It’s made of soil moisture sensors that transmit information (too much moisture? too little?) through a circuit board to a microcontroller, just like a mini-computer.
It’s no secret that we’re a drug obsessed nation. But not everyone knows that more than half our prescription drugs come from chemicals found in plants. Plus, according to New Scientist, many people around the world, including 80 percent of Africans, rely on medicinal plants for treatment of illnesses as serious as malaria and HIV.
And now, those potentially-life-saving plants are in trouble. The international conservation group Plantlife reports that pollution, over-harvesting, and habitat destruction are threatening the existence of 15,000 (out of a total 50,000) species of medicinal plants.
Plants that have the potential for treating migraines, fever, and even cancer could wind up disappearing in the near future, with countries such as China, India, Kenya, Nepal, Tanzania, and Uganda reporting shortages. Some of the plants at risk include: