Popeye ate his spinach to gain strength, but MIT researchers have given the tender green leaves a new superpower. Now, spinach leaves can detect dangerous explosives and even send an email notification when they sense trouble. (Really.) MIT researchers working in the field of “plant nanobionics” unlocked this science fiction-worthy ability by embedding nanomaterials into spinach leaves, right in the spot where photosynthesis occurs. The resulting modified spinach has a special superpower: the ability to detect nitroaromatic compounds, a common ingredient in landmines and other explosives.

By turning spinach leaves into explosive-sensoring devices, MIT researchers have taken the first leap toward a practical, handheld device capable of sniffing out deadly landmines. In the lab, the setup involves monitoring the nanomaterial-modified spinach leaves with an infrared camera. When the plant drinks up groundwater contaminated with nitroaromatic compounds, the leaves emit a fluorescent signal which the camera can detect. Specific patterns of light appear, revealing the presence of dangerous explosives.

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The camera, in turn, can be connected with a tiny computer and programmed to send an email to the user when explosives are found. In essence, this means the team has unlocked a way for plants and humans to communicate and, specifically, a way for leafy salad greens to help keep humans safe in more ways than one.

“This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier,” said Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the leader of the research team. Strano also theorizes similar plant-based systems can be used to warn people about pollutants as well as environmental conditions such as drought.

“Plants are very good analytical chemists,” he said. “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.”

The results of the study were just published in the journal Nature Materials.

Via The Verge

Images via MIT/YouTube screenshot and Christine Daniloff/MIT