Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Sentries in the Garden Shed

17.02.2011
Someday, that potted palm in your living room might go from green to white, alerting you to a variety of nasty contaminants in the air, perhaps even explosives.

The stuff of science fiction you say? Not so, says a Colorado State University biologist whose research is funded in part by Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T), as well as by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Office of Naval Research (ONR), and others.

Dr. June Medford and her team in the Department of Biology at Colorado State have shown that plants can serve as highly specific sentries for environmental pollutants and explosives. She's enabled a computer-designed detection trait to work in plants. How? Based on research so far, Medford says the detection abilities of some plants (tobacco is an example) are similar to, or even better, than those of a dog's snout, long the hallmark of a good detector. Best of all, the training time is nothing compared to that of a dog.

"The idea comes directly from nature," Medford said. "Plants can't run or hide from threats, so they've developed sophisticated systems to detect and respond to their environment. We've 'taught' plants how to detect things we're interested in and respond in a way anyone can see, to tell us there is something nasty around, by modifying the way the plant's proteins process chlorophyll. Our system, with improvements, may allow plants to serve as a simple and inexpensive means to monitor human surroundings for substances such as pollutants, explosives, or chemical agents."

The detection traits could be used in any plant and could detect multiple pollutants at once – changes that can also be detected by satellite. While visible change in the plant is apparent after a day, the reaction can be remotely sensed within a couple of hours. A spectral imaging system designed specifically for the detection of de-greening biosensors would provide the fastest indication of a threat detected by the plants.

Computational design of the detection trait was initially done in collaboration with Professor Homme Hellinga at Duke University, and more recently with Professor David Baker at the University of Washington. The Baker and Hellinga laboratories used a computer program to redesign naturally-occurring proteins called receptors. These redesigned receptors specifically recognize a pollutant or explosive. Medford's lab then modifies these computer redesigned receptors to function in plants, and targets them to the plant cell wall where they can recognize pollutants or explosives in the air or soil near the plant. Once the substance is detected, an internal signal causes the plant to turn white.

Medford and her team want to speed up detection time. The initial or first-generation plants respond to an explosive in hours, but improvements are underway to reduce the response time to just a few minutes. A faster response time increases the likelihood of identifying the threat and preventing an attack.

"At this point in the research, it takes hours to achieve a visible change in the foliage," says Doug Bauer, DHS S&T's program manager on the research. "Ideally, we'd want the reaction to be considerably faster." In addition to faster response times, Bauer says, in the next generation of the research, the indicators may take place in a non-visible spectrum, such as infrared, by using color-changing methods other than the suppression of chlorophyll. That way, law enforcement equipped with the appropriate sensors would be alerted, but a terrorist would not be tipped off.

A decentralized, ubiquitous detection capability could allow the early detection of bomb-manufacturing sites, instead of waiting for a potential bomber to show up at a transportation hub or other target zone.

There are still many, many years of research to go before any possible deployment of plant sentinels. Once the research achieves a point where it may be possible to deploy, there are other considerations that will have to be taken into account and additional studies to be conducted. For example, USDA regulations stipulate that genetically-altered plants must go through a rigorous study on their impact to and interaction with the environment before they can be cultivated or planted in the United States.

This work could eventually be used for a wide range of applications such as security in airports or monitoring for pollutants such as radon, a carcinogenic gas that can be found in basements. Harnessing plants as bio-sensors allows for distributed sensing without the need for a power supply. "One day, plants may assist law enforcement officers in detecting meth labs or help emergency responders determine where hazardous chemicals are leaking," Bauer says. "The fact that DoD, DHS and a variety of other agencies contributed to funding this research is an indicator of the breadth of possibilities."

Financial support for this research was provided by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the Bioscience Discovery Evaluation Grant Program through the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T), and Gitam Technologies. Most recently, Medford and her team received a three-year, $7.9 million grant from the DoD's Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

The research from Medford's team appeared in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE.

Gail Cleere | Newswise Science News
Further information:
http://www.dhs.gov

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht How do muscles know what time it is?
21.08.2018 | Helmholtz Zentrum München - Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Gesundheit und Umwelt

nachricht A novel synthetic antibody enables conditional “protein knockdown” in vertebrates
20.08.2018 | Technische Universität Dresden

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: It’s All in the Mix: Jülich Researchers are Developing Fast-Charging Solid-State Batteries

There are currently great hopes for solid-state batteries. They contain no liquid parts that could leak or catch fire. For this reason, they do not require cooling and are considered to be much safer, more reliable, and longer lasting than traditional lithium-ion batteries. Jülich scientists have now introduced a new concept that allows currents up to ten times greater during charging and discharging than previously described in the literature. The improvement was achieved by a “clever” choice of materials with a focus on consistently good compatibility. All components were made from phosphate compounds, which are well matched both chemically and mechanically.

The low current is considered one of the biggest hurdles in the development of solid-state batteries. It is the reason why the batteries take a relatively long...

Im Focus: Color effects from transparent 3D-printed nanostructures

New design tool automatically creates nanostructure 3D-print templates for user-given colors
Scientists present work at prestigious SIGGRAPH conference

Most of the objects we see are colored by pigments, but using pigments has disadvantages: such colors can fade, industrial pigments are often toxic, and...

Im Focus: Unraveling the nature of 'whistlers' from space in the lab

A new study sheds light on how ultralow frequency radio waves and plasmas interact

Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles present new research on a curious cosmic phenomenon known as "whistlers" -- very low frequency packets...

Im Focus: New interactive machine learning tool makes car designs more aerodynamic

Scientists develop first tool to use machine learning methods to compute flow around interactively designable 3D objects. Tool will be presented at this year’s prestigious SIGGRAPH conference.

When engineers or designers want to test the aerodynamic properties of the newly designed shape of a car, airplane, or other object, they would normally model...

Im Focus: Robots as 'pump attendants': TU Graz develops robot-controlled rapid charging system for e-vehicles

Researchers from TU Graz and their industry partners have unveiled a world first: the prototype of a robot-controlled, high-speed combined charging system (CCS) for electric vehicles that enables series charging of cars in various parking positions.

Global demand for electric vehicles is forecast to rise sharply: by 2025, the number of new vehicle registrations is expected to reach 25 million per year....

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

LaserForum 2018 deals with 3D production of components

17.08.2018 | Event News

Within reach of the Universe

08.08.2018 | Event News

A journey through the history of microscopy – new exhibition opens at the MDC

27.07.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

A materials scientist’s dream come true

21.08.2018 | Materials Sciences

Quantum bugs, meet your new swatter

20.08.2018 | Information Technology

A novel synthetic antibody enables conditional “protein knockdown” in vertebrates

20.08.2018 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>