MIT scientists engineer spinach to detect explosives

This research team has found a way to infuse the vegetable with super powers.

Nanobionic spinach leaves

The nutritional value of a spinach salad can go a long way in helping to protect the body against a host of dangerous illnesses and now, scientists have lent the superfood an even greater degree of power. A team of researchers from MIT figured out a way to implant spinach leaves with tiny tubes that can sense when an explosive device is nearby even alerting someone to the potential threat via email. 

As part of a field termed “plant nanobionics”, MIT previously developed carbon nanotubes that were able to sense the presence of a wide range of molecules, including hydrogen peroxide, the explosive TNT and the nerve gas sarin. When one of these target molecules was detected, the carbon tube's fluorescence was visibly altered.

The latest research saw the same MIT team placing these special nanomaterials into the spinach leaves at the point where photosynthesis occurs. These nanomaterial sensors are able to detect a specific compound often used in landmines and other similar explosives called nitroaromatic compounds.

“This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier,” Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and leader of the research team, Michael Strano explained to Inhabit. “Plants are very good analytical chemists. They have an extensive root network in the soil, are constantly sampling groundwater, and have a way to self-power the transport of that water up into the leaves."

The lab process involves the setting up of infrared cameras to monitor the modified spinach leaves as they drink up groundwater contaminated with the explosive compounds. The leaves, which emit a fluorescent signal detectable by the cameras, reveal the presence of the dangerous compound by releasing a specific pattern of light.

This remarkable breakthrough – which was recently published in the journal Nature Materials – represents a promising move to more practical, potentially hand held devices capable of detecting the presence of deadly explosives.