Spinach is no longer just a superfood, says MIT News. By embedding leaves with tiny carbon nanotubes, MIT engineers have transformed spinach plants into sensors that can detect explosives and wirelessly relay that information to a handheld device similar to a smartphone. The researchers have dubbed this process of engineering electronic systems into plants “plant nanobionics.”

Nitroaromatics are often used in landmines and other explosives, which prompted publications such as Time magazine and the Washington Post to describe the engineered spinach as “bomb detectors.” Plants naturally “sample” groundwater, and when one of these chemicals is present, the tubes embedded in the plant leaves emit a fluorescent signal that 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, MIT News said.

Michael Strano, an MIT professor who led the research team, said he believes plant power could also be harnessed to warn humans about pollutants and environmental conditions such as drought. Plants are ideally suited for monitoring the environment because they already take in a lot of information from their surroundings, Strano says.

“Plants are very good analytical chemists,” he told MIT News. “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.”

Strano’s lab has previously developed carbon nanotubes for use as sensors to detect a wide range of molecules, including hydrogen peroxide, the explosive TNT, and the nerve gas sarin. When the target molecule binds to a polymer wrapped around the nanotube, it alters the tube’s fluorescence. READ MORE