At Colorado State University, Dr. Judy Medford and her team are developing ways for plants to visually signal when there is a biological contaminant present.
Color-chancing plants that respond to carcinogens or pathogens in the air? Sounds a bit sci-fi, but it may not be far off the mark from reality if Homeland Security, DARPA and the Office of Naval research have anything to say about it. All three agencies are very interested in a new technology being developed by Medford at Colorado state, one that re-programs a plant's natural proteins, called receptors, to detect pollutants or explosives that are of interest to humankind. Once such a detection has been made, the receptors signal the plant to stop producing chlorophyll which will cause it to turn white over a 24-48 hour period.
Plant detection stages: time to get out!
Ideally, the team hopes to cut down that reaction time and also branch out into other ways of detection signaling such as in the IR or UV spectrum. The hope is that detector plants could initially be placed at airports and other high-security facilities and that they would be constantly scanned for any change in their receptor makeup, aiding in early detection.
While the US has significant restrictions on the use of genetically enhanced plant life, Medford has show that certain plants, such as tobacco, have at least the pollutant sniffing power of the world's best-trained canines, making this process not only reliable but one that will cost a significant amount less over time.
The hope is to eventually have a detector plant or two in every household, something we'll likely need if we keep polluting at the same rate we are now. Much like the canary in the mine, if your plant stops singing its green song and turns color, its time to get the hell out.