Bomb-Sniffing Plants Fight Terrorism

The latest in airport security isn’t a fancy new scanner from the TSA, it’s a special plant that can sniff out would-be terrorists.

Researchers at Colorado State University have manipulated the plants so that they turn white when it detects even trace amounts of TNT in the air. The technology, published in the peer-reviewed online science journal PloS One and financed by the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, could find its way into airports in just a few years.

“The idea to make detector plants comes directly from nature,” said Professor June Medford, the lead scientist on the team. “Plants can’t run or hide from threats, so they’ve developed sophisticated systems to detect and respond to their environment.”

Her team in the Department of Biology has found a way to rewire those systems so that the chlorophyll drains off from the plant, leaving them a stark white when they detect specific materials.

Still relatively immature, the current technology has a response time of hours but Medford hopes to reduce this down to a few minutes over the next couple of years as they improve the process. The redesigned plants are also highly sensitive, 100 times more sensitive than a bomb-sniffing dog.

With such practical applications, the team has already received a three-year $7.9 million grant from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency in the U.S. Department of Defense.

"Plant sentinels engineered to detect explosives may ultimately help us protect our troops from improvised explosive devices (IED's)," said Linda Chrisey, program officer for the Naval Biosciences and Biocentric Technology Program at the Office of Naval Research.

The endgame is the ability to modify any plant to detect a slew of different pollutants at the same time. Medford concedes that the technology is still a work-in-progress but she believes that these goals could be obtained within three years.