Engineers have transformed spinach plants into mini bio-sensors that can detect explosives and other chemical compounds and wirelessly send this information to users.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineers used a technique called vascular infusion to embed the leaves with carbon nanotubes.

The nanotubes are designed to detect chemical compounds known as nitroaromatics, which are used in landmines and other explosives.

When present in groundwater, the nitroaromatic compounds are absorbed by the plant roots.

The carbon nanotubes embedded in the plant leaves then emit the signal which can be read with an infrared camera.

The camera can be attached to a small computer, similar to a smartphone, which then sends an email to the user.

This is one of the first demonstrations of engineering electronic systems into plants, an approach that the researchers call “plant nanobionics.”

Environmental monitoring

Two years ago, in the first demonstration of plant nanobionics, nanoparticles were used to enhance plants’ photosynthesis ability and to turn them into sensors for nitric oxide, a pollutant produced by combustion.

Plants are very good analytical chemists

Plants are ideally suited for monitoring the environment because they already take in a lot of information from their surrounds said Michael Strano, professor of chemical engineering at MIT who is heading up the project.

“Plants are very good analytical chemists, 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,” he said.

The technology is in early stage development but has huge potential, particularly for agriculture.

Watch the video from MIT below