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MIT Geniuses Have Transformed Spinach Plants Into Bomb-Sniffing Machines

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Engineers at MIT have transformed spinach plants into bomb-sniffing machines that can wirelessly relay warning signals to a handheld device similar to a smartphone.

They embedded the plants’ leaves with carbon nanotubes—tiny cylinders of carbon that can detect “nitroaromatics”—chemical compounds often used in landmines and other explosives. When one of these chemicals compounds is absorbed naturally by the plant (either in the air or through groundwater), the embedded nanotubes emit a fluorescent signal that can be read with an infrared camera, MIT said. “The camera can be attached to a small computer similar to a smartphone, which then sends an email to the user,” the school said in a release.

The study, led by Min Hao Wong, an MIT graduate student, and Juan Pablo Giraldo, a former MIT postdoc now working as an assistant professor at the University of California at Riverside, was outlined in a paper in the Oct. 31 issue of Nature Materials.

These results “open the door to the use of wild-type plants for infrared communication in wide areas, and real-time monitoring of environments such as cities, crop fields, high-security facilities, and homes,” the paper concluded. Watch a video about how it works here:

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Write to Kate Samuelson at kate.samuelson@time.com