My quite pedestrian academic work—I translate ancient Greek and Latin poetry—pales by comparison to the research of a Colorado State University biologist. Professor June Medford has taught plant proteins how to detect explosives by deputizing their ‘natural, evolutionary self-defense mechanisms’ to detect threats. Such bomb-detecting plants could be easily, ah, planted in public places from airports to the entryways of buildings (giving new meaning to the idea of ‘watching out for what’s in the bushes’). The plants have been engineered to turn white when they detect certain chemicals—for instance, TNT.
As Medford points out on Gizmodo, plants can’t exactly move if a bug crawls onto them and starts, chewing at their leaves. Plants have ‘receptor’ proteins in their DNA which release a series of chemicals called terpenoids; these send a signal for a plant’s leaf cuticle to thicken. Medford and her research team designed a computer model to manipulate a plant’s receptors so they would react when coming into contact with certain chemicals. They then ‘translate[d] the language from the protein back to the DNA, and encode[d]‘ what they wanted in the DNA—namely, plants that respond a certain way in the presence of certain chemicals.
Gizmodo offers more of the background to how Medford, a plant biologist, got involved in such what might be called horticultural counterterrorism:
It all started in 2003 with a Darpa program to grow circuitry. Back then, Medford heard about a program from the far-out Pentagon research arm called Biological Input/Output Systems, geared to produce “rational design and engineering of genetic regulatory circuits, signal transduction pathways, and metabolism.” The program was essentially a call for computer-designed receptors. “I was a plant biologist,” Medford recalls, “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we put it all together, like Reese’s peanut butter and chocolate.’”
That led to a $2 billion grant from Darpa, with the Office of Naval Research kicking in another million. But by far the biggest benefactor to Medford’s research is the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which last year gave her a $7.9 million grant to get the bomb-sniffing ferns from the lab to the real world.
Medford and her team’s work has been published in PLoS ONE. She estimates that it will take three or four more years before those ferns might be ready to ‘work.’ Unfortunately, she does not think that it’s feasible to get the plants to react to ammonium nitrate, a common chemical used for homemade bombs in Afghanistan (and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing) since, after all, it’s found in fertilizer.’
Needless to say, Medford’s research is both promising and intriguing, and suggests that, to make our world safer, we need to think creatively. As she writes on her webpage:
Since the dawn of civilization humans have used plants for food, fuel, shelter and clothing. We are continuing this use and apply cutting edge technology of Synthetic Biology to understand basic aspects about plants and develop new types of plants and plant traits useful for society.
Sometimes solutions are hidden in plain sight and might be growing right in your garden.
Photo by L'eau Bleue.