Sensing Danger With Spinach

Do you need more proof that we’re living in the future? A group of MIT engineers have found a way for spinach, aka Popeye’s favorite short-term strength booster, to send potentially lifesaving emails regarding explosives in the area.

As the team outlined in a paper published in 2016, the field of plant nanobionics uses nanotechnology to enhance the natural abilities of plants and make them do new tricks. Here’s how this one works: the roots of the spinach plants absorb nitroaromatic compounds such as picric acid from the groundwater, and these transpire up through the stem and into the leaves along with water and other nutrients. When the compounds reach the leaves, they accumulate in the plants’ mesophyll — the inner tissue of the leaves.

A pair of sensors made of single-walled carbon nanotubes are built into the leaves. One sensor is engineered to detect nitroaromatic compounds using near-infrared fluorescent emission, and the other is used as a reference signal. As the the compounds build up in the mesophyll, the IR signal gets stronger. This change is detected by a camera, which triggers an email alert to the researchers within a matter of minutes. After running the experiments with a fancy-pants indium-gallium-arsenide camera, the researchers were able to duplicate the results using a Raspberry Pi and a CCD camera module with the infrared filter removed.

Plants have an ear to the groundwater like none other and absorb a lot of information about the environment around them, so the researchers believe that detecting explosive materials is only the beginning — they could also be harbingers of pollution and other environmental concerns.

Even if there is no threat of landmines in the vicinity, weeds are a problem everywhere. There’s a Raspberry Pi-based solution for those, too.

22 thoughts on “Sensing Danger With Spinach

    1. – They used ‘sensor is engineered to detect nitroaromatic’ to detect nitroaromatics… – kind of seemed like a plant was an unnecessary middleman / gimmick, at least from this… The full article is paywalled, but the bit available looks like the plant is maybe concentrating levels high enough for the sensor to pick up, and not completely for hype/gimmick.

  1. I wish my spinach crop could take care of answering those emails from management …..

    As for the article, for this to work, one would need to cover the suspect region with spinach first, yes ? Considering the work, an armored vehicle built to withstand landmines would be easier and faster, also with less risk to the farmers.

    One interesting idea would to develop plants / varieties of rapid growth that could be used to clean contaminated areas, . Like the plant would absorb the contaminants, lead, toxic compounds, etc, and could then be harvested and processed, or taken to an appropriate disposal place.

          1. If that’s true, it’s not really organic, is it? Truly organic foods (like something you grow by yourself and are sure of its authenticity) will pollute the environment less (no -cides) and typically taste better (no industrial fertilizers that only focus on 3 minerals which cause increased growth but don’t add flavor like naturally balanced minerals and nutrients do).

            If you think the difference between organic and non-organic is the same as the difference between name brand batteries and the store brand batteries made in the same factory, you don’t really understand gardening or plant biology.

            But don’t take my word for it. Plant some vegetables and try it out.

    1. Genetically engineered to wilt and die if there’s unsafe level of bacteria since some food like fresh spinach, lettuce, and melon can’t be cooked to eat.

      Farmers and USDA could then check for contaminant source. A widespread die off would indicate water source for the sprinkler is probably contaminated. A small area could be due to runoff from contaminated area like neighboring livestock farm.

      1. Sure you can cook spinach. A lot of ppl don’t like it cooked, but you can, just have to not overdo it. However, it’s good for adding extra nutrients to soup, stew, goulash, stir fry, chili even, type dishes, if you chop it up small, it almost won’t be noticed, adds a bit of richness to flavor.

    2. I second that motion. Motion to approve! Thinking the pharma and healthcare lobbies aren’t going to favor so much.

      On another note; I’ve never been able to grow Spinach without it bolting, though I’ve only attempted to grow outdoors.

      Thinking that cool lens’ed… ok, I think they’re cool cameras either way… might not be the way to detect effusia from pathogens. However, there might be a better chromatography method or FTIR method that will be sensitive enough for the low concentration needing to be detected to ID. Was another one of those range of methods I was talking about researching and micro didn’t like me.

  2. Sorry Rogfanther, I was drunk for earlier posts and now realise that you had covered the fails before me.

    I still get excited when I/we can be better than MIT, even when drunk.

  3. “A group of MIT engineers have found a way for spinach, aka Popeye’s favorite short-term strength booster, to send potentially lifesaving emails regarding explosives in the area.”

    Olive Oyl: “Popeye! Bluto’s coming with a keg o’ dynomite ta blow up yur spinach patch!”

  4. But do you have to risk life and limb planting the (admittedly clever) spinach in a field that possibly contains land-mine, in order to detect them?
    Wouldn’t the explosives get detected at the planting stage already when you wake up in hospital and they tell you a land mine blew your legs off? That way you could use normal spinach instead, and get rid of the hassle of all that nanotechnology, sensors, emails etc etc.

  5. I don’t get it. What’s the point? Why would there be explosives in the groundwater of a spinach field?

    Ok. Once I clicked the actual article I saw they mentioned land mines. I guess that makes a little bit of sense. But if someone planted a field full of spinach didn’t they already set off the mine?

    Maybe if this was done with a plant that spreads and outcompetes whatever is already there it would grow into areas that someone didn’t already have to walk to plant it. But then you are creating an invasive species problem.

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