Science 3 min read

Smart Plants can now Detect Bio-Weapons and Chemical Threats

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Because plants are efficient, self-sustaining sensors that naturally react to environmental stimuli, DARPA plans to use them to detect bio-weapons threats.

In 1346, when the Mongols besieged Caffa, a trading post of the Republic of Genoa, in today’s Feodosija (Ukraine), they weaponized “Black Death”. Mongol troops used trebuchets to catapult dead bodies infected with plague into the fortress.

Many other recorded accounts of biological warfare date back centuries, but one Italian biochemist claimed he’s found traces of the oldest record of bio warfare.

#DARPA to use genetically-modified plants to detect #bioweapons threats.Click To Tweet

According to Dr. Siro Trevisanato, about 3.5 millennia ago, the Hittites from Anatolia (now Turkey) systematically introduced tularemia (caused by Francisella tularensis) infected sheep corpses into cities that they would later conquer.

Banned since WWI with the 1925 Geneva Protocol, yet used again in WWII and later, bio-weapons–from infected corpses flung into cities in the Middle Ages, to anthrax-contaminated mail in the early 2000s–have been part of offensive arsenals for a very long time.

DARPA’s “Smart Plan(ts)” Against Security Threats

DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is the U.S. Department of Defense’s main technological arm dedicated to innovative military research.

Because bio-weapons are always as threatening, and international regulations have been violated before, DARPA is looking to develop unorthodox biowarfare countermeasures.

The agency is experimenting with genetically modified plants in order to turn them into self-sufficient surveillance sensors.

The Advanced Plant Technologies (APT) program, recently revealed by DARPA, is soliciting proposals from science and tech communities on the potential of leveraging plant physiology to detect biological, chemical, and other security threats.

“The program,” said DARPA in a press release, “will pursue technologies to engineer robust, plant-based sensors that are self-sustaining in their environment and can be remotely monitored using existing hardware.”

Plants, Nature’s Stationary Lookouts

Although plants are not likely to spy on us anytime soon, apparently they could be used to collect different types of intelligence information and detect potential threats.

DARPA’s APT program aims to harness natural mechanisms of genetically modified plants, to use them as next-gen sentries that are independent and self-sufficient. Plants can be, well, planted everywhere. They are widely available and, obviously, they are able to sustain themselves.

Plants are highly attuned to their environments and naturally manifest physiological responses to basic stimuli such as light and temperature, but also in some cases to touch, chemicals, pests, and pathogens,” said Blake Bextine, the APT Program Manager.

Emerging molecular and modeling techniques may make it possible to reprogram these detection and reporting capabilities for a wide range of stimuli, which would not only open up new intelligence streams, but also reduce the personnel risks and costs associated with traditional sensors.

Gene editing techniques will be used to endow plants with the necessary intelligence capabilities.

Have any ideas about genetically-modified plants worth developing for the APT project?

You can present them to DARPA at the Proposers Day event, which will be held on December 12th, in Arlington, Virginia. However, you must register here before December 6th, 2017.

Check out the Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) for full details about DARPA’s APT program.

With GMO plants now being used to boost national security as well as food production, what are the biodiversity implications of this level of environmental influence?

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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