Spinach To Human: ‘Hey, there’s a bomb around here!’

Plant to person communication

Yep, you read that right: A spinach plant – or some other type – could be ‘programmed’ to detect and alert a human, via a computer-recognized signal, of the presence of an explosive device.

They never even taught this concept in Science Fiction 101!

Who even comes up with these ideas?  – the concept that a plant’s can be groomed to detect “nitroaromatics” in nearby substances that may – hopefully on rare occasions – point to the presence of an explodable  device. As it happens, ‘they’ were Min Hao Wong, a grad student at MIT, and Juan Pablo Giraldo, a former MIT postdoc,  now an assistant professor at the University of California/Riverside. Their discovery was announced a few days ago (on Oct. 31) in the scientific journal Nature Materials.

Wong, Giraldo and their team – which included seven others then working at MIT — embedded a spinach plant’s  leaves with carbon nanotubes—tiny carbon cylinders able to detect “nitroaromatics”—chemical compounds often used in landmines and other explosives. When one of these chemicals compounds is absorbed naturally by the plant (either in the air or through groundwater), the embedded nanotubes emit a fluorescent signal that can be read with an infrared camera, MIT said. “The camera can be attached to a small computer similar to a smartphone, which then sends an email to the user,” the school said in a release.

Question: Could spinach so equipped detect, after being consumed by a human, the ‘explosive’ gut feeling when too-hot peppers are eaten?

“The goal of plant nanobionics is to introduce nanoparticles into the plant to give it non-native functions,” says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the leader of the research team.

To add another strange note to this tale, Carbon P. Dubbs, a co-founder of what’s now known as UOP (formerly Universal Oil Products), sported the middle name ‘Petroleum.’

In the news release from MIT, Strano said, “This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier.” The senior author of the paper listing Wong and Giraldo as the lead scientists on the project, Strano believes plant power could also be harnessed to warn of pollutants and environmental conditions such as drought.

Min Hao Wong has started a company called Plantea to further develop this nanobionics technology.


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