Just last month, a team of researchers from MIT announced that they had created a method of “training” plants to detect explosives. They accomplished this feat by implanting specialized chemical-sensing carbon nanotubes into the fibrous tissues of spinach plants. As water is absorbed through the plants’ roots, it passes through the nanotubes on its way throughout the rest of the plant. If these nanostructures come into contact with any nitroaromatics – the chemical compounds often found in explosives -- they emit a faint fluorescent glow. By focusing specialized infrared cameras on the plants, this faint glow - and therefore the presence of explosives - can be detected by human observers.
According to the data published in Nature Materials, this breakthrough can enable researchers to create plants which serve as a type of living network of sensors to detect any number of chemical compounds and alert their human counterparts:
Here, we demonstrate that living spinach plants (Spinacia oleracea) can be engineered to serve as self-powered pre-concentrators and autosamplers of analytes in ambient groundwater and as infrared communication platforms that can send information to a smartphone. These results demonstrate the ability of living, wild-type plants to function as chemical monitors of groundwater and communication devices to external electronics at standoff distances.
Already, some outlets are speculating that this research marks a paradigm shift in plant-human relationships. According to an MIT press release, lead researcher Michael Strano is claiming that this technology has finally managed to overcome the plant-human “communication barrier:”
This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier. Plants are very environmentally responsive. They know that there is going to be a drought long before we do. They can detect small changes in the properties of soil and water potential. If we tap into those chemical signaling pathways, there is a wealth of information to access.
New kinds of information might be able to be gleaned from this new channel of communication with our neighbors in the plant kingdom. So far, researchers are already hoping that this technology could enable plants to detect environmental pollution or unhealthy soil conditions, leading to increases in crop yields and health..