Next in airport security: bomb detecting plants?

Next in airport security: bomb detecting plants?

February 01, 2011
Elizabeth Haggarty

The next time you forget to water your plants, feel guilty — that geranium could save your life.
At least it could if Dr. June Medford’s research comes to fruition.
Medford has spent the last seven years developing vegetation that changes colour when explosives are nearby.
Picture it: A bomb-wielding passenger wanders into the departure lounge. How do you know? The plants have just turned white.

“It was really nature’s idea,” said Medford in an interview. “Plants can’t run and hide from threats, so they have to detect things and are wired to be sensitive about what they detect.”
Medford’s lab at Colorado State University has been developing bomb-sensitive vegetation since 2003, with funding from the U.S. government.
So how does it work?
Using lab plants, Medford and her team are transferring receptors they design on computers into the vegetation.

“We are rewiring the plants to take specific information from outside the plant to inside the plant,” Medford said. “When they detect this specific information, it turns on another circuit that tells the plant to turn white.”
This technology is transferable to any variety of plant, whether you want a bomb-detecting orchid or a security-conscious hosta.
Medford expects the plants to be fully developed and ready for installation in the next three years.
As security increases in airports, some passengers find pat-downs and full-body scanners increasingly intrusive, but a wall of Medford’s plants could be equally effective, she points out, while improving the atmosphere of the departures lounge.
According to Medford, the plants would be ten times more effective than a sniffer dog.

While these dynamite-sensitive plants won’t be able to pick out individuals carrying explosives, they will be able to alert authorities that explosives are in a specific area.
A company is also being established to sell the plants to the private sector. Medford hopes they will be used everywhere from large sporting or concert venues to land-mine detection, where seeds can be scattered and fields of the bomb detecting plants grown to highlight where mines are present.
And if businesses aren’t persuaded by the beauty of a flowering security expert, as Medford points out, compared to other bomb-detecting technology, the plants are “dirt cheap.”
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