Scientists have transformed the humble spinach plant into a bomb detector.

By embedding small tubes  in the plants’ leaves, they can be made to pick up chemicals called nitro-aromatics, which are found in buried munitions such as landmines.

Real-time information can the be wirelessly relayed to a handheld device.

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The MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) work is published in the journal Nature Materials. The scientists implanted nanoparticles and carbon nanotubes (tiny cylinders of carbon into the leaves of the spinach plant. They then delivered the nitro-aromatics into the water taken up by the roots and directly to the leaves in droplets. It takes around 10 minuted for the spinach to take up the water via the roots into the leaves.

To read the signal, the researchers shine a laser onto the lead, prompting embedded nanotubes to emit near-infrared fluorescent light. This can then be detected with a small infrared camera connected to a small, cheap Raspberry Pi compiler. The signal can also be detected with a smartphone by removing the infrared filter that most of them have.

Co-author of the study, Prof Michael Strano, from MIT in Cambridge (US) said that he believed the work was an important proof of principle. He went on to say: “Our paper outlines how one could engineer plants like this to detect virtually anything,”

Prof Strano’s lab has previously developed carbon nanotubes that can be used as sensors to detect hydrogen peroxide, TNT and the nerve gas sarin.

When the target molecule binds to a polymer material wrapped around the nanotube, it changes how it glows.

Prof Strano said “The plants could be used for defence applications, but also to monitor public spaces for terrorism-related activities, since we show both water and airborne detection,”

“Such plants could be used to monitor groundwater seepage from buried munitions or waste that contains nitro-aromatics.”

Using the set-up described in the paper, the researchers can pick up a signal from about 1m away from the plant, and they are now looking at how they can increase that distance.

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