Preparing for a turf war

Article by Neil Clark

THE US military plans to go green – as it announces plans to fund the development of “spy plants” capable of sensing threats remotely.

APT envisions plants as discreet, self-sustaining sensors capable of reporting via remotely monitored, programmed responses to environmental stimuli (Credit: DARPA)

The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced its new Advanced Plant Technologies (APT) programme earlier this month. It hopes to take advantage of technological advances in fields such as precision gene editing and remote sensing, to develop plants as discreet, self-sustaining remote sensors.

The programme’s overview says the goal of APT is “to control and direct plant physiology to detect chemical, biological, radiological, and/or nuclear threats, as well as electromagnetic signals”.  It adds: “These stimuli should be related to human activities, eg intentional or accidental chemical or biological release, and not be a natural function of the plant.”.

Potential responses of a plant could include a change in appearance, such as the reflectance or shape of its leaves, or instigating life events such as unusual blooming or pollen release. This could then be detected using existing hardware, such as ground, air, and space-based technology capable of measuring temperature, chemical composition, reflectance, and structural characteristics.

“Plants are highly attuned to their environments and naturally manifest physiological responses to basic stimuli such as light and temperature, but also in some cases to touch, chemicals, pests, and pathogens,” said Blake Bextine, DARPA programme manager for APT.

“Emerging molecular and modelling techniques may make it possible to reprogramme these detection and reporting capabilities for a wide range of stimuli, which would not only open up new intelligence streams, but also reduce the personnel risks and costs associated with traditional sensors,” he added.

The overview emphasises that plants must be capable of surviving in the wild. It says that hardy, long-lived varieties will be preferred to model species often used for research, such as tobacco plants. Despite this, it says all research will be undertaken in contained areas, such as greenhouses, to ensure engineered plants are not released to the environment.

It also suggests that proposing teams include experts in a range of fields including plant physiology, gene editing, biochemistry, modelling, phenotyping, remote sensing, and plant ecology.

A (and webcast) will be held on 12 December in Arlington, US to initiate the programme.

Work could be similar to previous research undertaken by MIT, which developed spinach capable of detecting explosives and communicating this to a handheld device. This was possible by embedding fluorescent nanotubes into leaves via vascular infusion, which would then communicate to a Raspberry Pi via light signals.

Article by Neil Clark

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

Recent Editions

Catch up on the latest news, views and jobs from The Chemical Engineer. Below are the four latest issues. View a wider selection of the archive from within the Magazine section of this site.