MIT engineers develop explosive-detecting spinach


In Boston, researchers have successfully demonstrated one of the first examples of engineering electronic systems into plants. Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, has embedded carbon nanotubes into spinach leaves to turn the plant into a sensor that can detect chemicals commonly used in explosives such as landmines.

Strano tells MIT News that when the chemicals are present in groundwater, the carbon nanotubes in the leaves emit a signal.

“Plants are very good analytical chemists,” he says. “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.” It only takes 10 minutes for the plant to draw the molecules into the leaves, where the “detector” is embedded into the mesophyll leaf layer.

Strano has also developed carbon nanotubes that can sense hydrogen peroxide and sarin nerve gas.