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In this photo taken Jan. 2, 2016, baskets of organic spinach and other leafy greens are displayed for sale at a farmers market in Falls Church, Va.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Scientists figured out to way to make spinach plants detect explosives


Botanists have figured out a way to make spinach plants detect explosives and even send an email notification if it does.

This sounds a bit like scientists have too much time on their hands, but there's a legitimate reason for this, according to the study published Monday in Nature Materials.

The study falls under the field of "plant nanobionics," which largely consists of embedding materials in living plants that let them do things plants normally never consider doing.

So how does this work?

Plants naturally absorb gases (mostly carbon dioxide) from the environment. So scientists jumped in on the existing gas-absorption abilities of plants and added tiny sensors that can detect nitroaromatic compounds -- chemicals that are common in explosives like land mines.

The only way this works is if the chemicals are absorbed by the roots. You can't just stab a plant's leaves with sensors and expect it to work.

This graphic from The Verge breaks down the process.

But how does the plant send an email?

The sensors can send a signal that an infrared camera can pick up. If that camera is connected to a computer or networked device, it can send an email notification.

It sounds like a lot of work, but using plants as bomb-sniffers could catch on. We already have plants all over the place, and they're obviously carbon-neutral and don't require electricity. And the study's authors say this could be replicated with other kinds of plants, or other chemicals.

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