A terrorist armed with explosives waltzes into a major U.S. airport looking to wreak havoc. He sits down next to a planter filled with luscious green plants while he reviews his plans to strike.
Within the next four to five minutes, while the would-be-bomber plots, he turns around and notices that all of the plants in the planter have turned ash white. He looks up just in time to see airport security swoop in from all angles to make the arrest.
This scenario could be planted firmly in reality within the coming decade with the help of June Medford, of CSUâ€™s Department of Biology, and her team of researchers. Medford believes these bomb-detecting plants could be the most versatile biotechnology of the 21st century.
â€œThey can be programmed to detect almost anything from pollutants to pathogens, or explosives to contaminations in ground water supplies,â€ Medford said Friday from behind a desk in her third story office in the Anatomy/Zoology Building.
All plants have receptors in their dermal tissue, which consists of all tissue that sits on the outside of the plant. When a certain pollutant or pathogen is floating through the air it attaches to a â€œbinding pocketâ€ in the tissue of a leaf or stem and triggers a chain reaction of protein activity.
These proteins signal nuclei within the cells of the plant to create enzymes, which break down chlorophyll (the chemical that gives plants their green color). In addition, they keep the cells from producing more, thus voiding the plant of any color and turning it white.
The reaction can be designed to accommodate many different reactants, and the extent of their capacity is not yet known, according to Kevin Morey, an assistant professor in the Biology Department.
Medford said she and her research team are working on several different aspects of the technology that are not yet field-ready, one of which is improving the plantâ€™s reaction time.
Currently, it can take several hours for the plant to turn white once exposed to a reactant.
Nikolai Braun, the team leader for response time, said it is his goal to have the plants reacting in a matter of minutes.
â€œWe have a lot of hypotheses, and for now itâ€™s a process of trial and error,â€ Braun said.
Another â€œbugâ€ in their theoretical salad is the level of exposure needed to cause a reaction.
According to Morey, a constant exposure to the pathogen is necessary to cause a reaction. This would be fine for detecting things like radon in your home or pollutants in the soil under your lawn, but detecting minute traces of explosive material for a limited time period is what the Department of Defense is interested in.
That is why the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, DTRA, recently provided Medford and her team with $7.9 million in grants to continue their work with these plants.
These agencies have put pressure on the program to finish faster, but Medford said it is likely to take three to four more years to complete.
â€œThe problem is that plants move slowly. It takes time for them to grow. It takes time for them to seed, and it takes even more time for them to grow again,â€ Morey said.
Despite these setbacks, Medford believes this technology could be extremely practical and used for a broad range of detection. She said the technology could help keep food safe, the air and water free of pollution, and be a viable tool of defense.
With President Barack Obama recently stressing the importance of science research and education in the United States, Medford hopes it will inspire more of Americaâ€™s youth to get involved with science.
â€œWe are going to need more support and that means more students working with us to make sure we get this technology completed as quickly as possible,â€ Medford said.
Staff writer Justin Rampy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.