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Chemical sensors in spinach can fire off messages, scientists say

Daily Mail logo Daily Mail 02/02/2021 Colin Fernandez Science Correspondent For The Daily Mail
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It helped make Popeye’s biceps bulge. Now spinach may have accomplished an even more unlikely feat.

For scientists say they have taught the vegetable to communicate... by email.

The bizarre-sounding project is part of a drive to help detect landmines. Scientists found spinach plants’ roots can suck up chemicals found in explosives, called nitroaromatics.

So they placed electronic sensors among their leaves. When the ‘bionic’ spinach detects the chemicals, its sensors glow red. This is picked up by an infrared camera which triggers an email to the scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

a close up of a logo: It helped make Popeye¿s biceps bulge. Now spinach may have accomplished an even more unlikely feat. For scientists say they have taught the vegetable to communicate... by email © Provided by Daily Mail It helped make Popeye¿s biceps bulge. Now spinach may have accomplished an even more unlikely feat. For scientists say they have taught the vegetable to communicate... by email

The technique could be used in former warzones to monitor groundwater for chemicals seeping from buried munitions without having to excavate. It is part of a wider field of research in which electrical systems are added to plants to give them new abilities.

‘Plants are very good analytical chemists,’ said Professor Michael Strano of MIT.

‘They have an extensive root network in the soil, are constantly sampling groundwater, and have a way to self-power the transport of that water up into the leaves.

'This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier.’

Professor Strano told the BBC: ‘The plants could be used for defence applications, but also to monitor public spaces for terrorism-related activities, since we show both water and airborne detection.

a green plant: The bizarre-sounding project is part of a drive to help detect landmines. Scientists found spinach plants¿ roots can suck up chemicals found in explosives, called nitroaromatics © Provided by Daily Mail The bizarre-sounding project is part of a drive to help detect landmines. Scientists found spinach plants¿ roots can suck up chemicals found in explosives, called nitroaromatics

'Such plants could be used to monitor groundwater seepage from buried munitions or waste that contains nitroaromatics.’

In December, Professor Strano said he had engineered a fern to allow it to detect arsenic in the earth. The toxic heavy metal can contaminate rice crops and groundwater.

The bionic fern was able to find arsenic levels as low as 0.2 parts per billion, compared to 10 parts per billion for existing detection systems.

Professor Strano’s lab is also interested in detecting stress in plants, to give an early warning of those suffering from fungus, excessive shade or heat.

Implants have been put in the leaves of a variety of plants, including strawberries and rocket.

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