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Spinach plants as explosive sensors

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1369842.  Sun Dec 27, 2020 8:25 am Reply with quote

Michael Strano's group from MIT published an article detailing some really interesting research they have done to allow living spinach plants to sense explosive compounds using single-walled carbon nanotubules (SWCNT).

Single-walled carbon nanotubules (SWCNT) fluoresce in the near-infrared, with its photoluminescence excitation profiles undergoing solvatochromic shifts in response to the environment. When SWNT conjugated to bombolitin-II, a peptide derived from bumblebee venom (which in itself is pretty cool), interacts with nitroaromatic compunds, the bombolitin-II undergoes secondary structural changes and causes the SWCNT emission to undergo a significant wavelength shifts. The really interesting use of this is that these SWCNT have been used to turn living spinach plants into stand-off explosive detectors. These SWCNT are embedded in the mesophyll of the plant leaf tissue of living spinach plants, where picric acid, a nitroaromatic commonly used in explosives, accumulates after transport from the roots. The accumulation of picric acid in the leaves causes a decrease in emission intensity relative to the amount of the compound accumulated, this information is monitored by a small detector measuring the near-infrared wavelengths.

This is not a new idea, there have been a few different genetically engineered plants that detect explosives, but approval for the use of these in uncontained environments would pose a problem. The use of SWCNT as a detection method means that wild-type plants could be used. These plants could be used to monitor environments for explosive compounds in the soil.

The paper can be downloaded here:

1369890.  Sun Dec 27, 2020 4:37 pm Reply with quote

Hi rowarne and welcome to the forums.

I'm not quite seeing how this is useful - you mean if you planted this type of spinach on a piece of land where there had been explosive material, such as a minefield, the plants would detect and show it?

But wouldn't you run the risk of setting off the explosives in the process of planting and harvesting?

Alexander Howard
1369894.  Sun Dec 27, 2020 4:52 pm Reply with quote

That's why you must never plan t spinach alongside the Red Whammy cabbage.

(How we miss Sir Terry...)

1369910.  Sun Dec 27, 2020 11:43 pm Reply with quote

Hi Jenny,
Thanks for the welcome
One idea is to be able to detect land minds in soil using plants so large areas can be screened. The seeds of transgenic tobacco and transgenic Arabidopsis plants that have been genetically modified to detect explosive compounds released into the soil can be seeded aerially, so there would be no disturbance of the landmines. There is an easily detectable visual change in these transgenic plants, so screening can be done remotely. However, regulations surrounding release of transgenic plants are so strict that governments probably wouldn’t agree to use of these plants.
These spinach plants with embedded SWCNT aren’t transgenic, which overcomes the problem of release into an environment. The living plants can be remotely assessed by the detector, so no harvesting required. But definitely getting the plants to areas like minefields would be a major problem. The authors suggest that the plants like this could be used for ‘real-time monitoring of environments such as cities, crop fields, high-security facilities, and homes’. So I think that maybe the application may be more tailored to seeing if production of explosives is causing any contamination of the surrounding environment.

1369956.  Mon Dec 28, 2020 11:38 am Reply with quote

Thanks for the explanation rowarne. Sadly I think this little nugget may have come slightly too late for the S series scripts, which are currently being written on the basis of research we were doing before Christmas. I'll be interested to see if the seeds make it into real-world usage though, now that I know about it.


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