Grow Your Own [Security]

The next hydrangea you grow could literally save your life. With the help of the Department of Defense, a biologist at Colorado State University has taught plant proteins how to detect explosives. Never let it be said that horticulture can’t fight terrorism…

It only took a small engineering nudge to deputize a plant’s natural, evolutionary self-defense mechanisms for threat detection. “Plants can’t run and hide,” says June Medford, the biologist who’s spent the last seven years figuring out how to deputize plants for counterterrorism. “If a bug comes by, it has to respond to it. And it already has the infrastructure to respond.”

That would be the “receptor” proteins in its DNA, which respond naturally to threatening stimuli. If a bug chews on a leaf, for instance, the plant releases a series of chemical signals called terpenoids — “a cavalry call,” Medford says, that thickens the leaf cuticle in defense…

It all started in 2003 with a DARPA program to grow circuitry. Back then, Medford heard about a program from the far-out Pentagon research arm called Biological Input/Output Systems, geared to produce “rational design and engineering of genetic regulatory circuits, signal-transduction pathways and metabolism.”

The program was essentially a call for computer-designed receptors. “I was a plant biologist,” Medford recalls, “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we put it all together, like Reese’s peanut butter and chocolate.’”

That led to a $2 million grant from Darpa, with the Office of Naval Research kicking in another million. But by far the biggest benefactor to Medford’s research is the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which last year gave her a $7.9 million grant to get the bomb-sniffing ferns from the lab to the real world…

Eventually, Medford expects to bring the bomb-detecting plants to market through genetically modified seedlings. Whatever it costs, it’s got to be less than the $100,000 to $200,000 that a backscatter “junk scanner” can run.

Since it appears any green plant can be modified to suit the purpose, eventually – consider the potential for mutual support between anti-terror aspidistra and medical marijuana! The possibilities are endless. If not vegan.

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