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Stand down sniffer dogs - spinach can now detect explosives

1st November 2016
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Bomb-sniffing dogs might need to have a long, hard think about their careers in law enforcement soon. It seems scientists have created a “sniffer spinach” that can detect hidden explosives.

The vegetable alternative to airport sniffer dogs was created by embedding the plant’s leaves with tiny chemical sensors.

So when the spinach sucks up ground water tainted by explosive, it primes itself to send out a light signal that can be read by an infra-red camera one metre away.

Spinach.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

The signal is switched on by shining a laser on to the leaves.

The research is said to be one of the first demonstrations of “plant nanobionics” – which involves embedding plants with tiny pieces of electronic materials.

Lead researcher Professor Michael Strano, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, said: “The goal of plant nanobionics is to introduce nanoparticles into the plant to give it non-native functions.

MIT plant communication.
(Christine Daniloff/MIT)

“Plants are very good analytical chemists. They have an extensive root network in the soil, are constantly sampling ground water, and have a way to self-power the transport of that water up into the leaves.”

Strano pointed out that the spinach signals could easily be read by an adapted mobile phone camera.

“This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier,” he added.

The plant sensors are made up of microscopic carbon nanotubes – tiny hollow carbon rods that are designed to detect nitroaromatic compounds (chemicals widely used in land mines and other explosive devices).

Just don’t try putting these nanobionic leaves in your salad!

The new research is reported in the journal Nature Materials.




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