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SCIENCE & PLANTS: Grow your own security: U.S: professor breeds bomb-spotting GE plants



                                  PART 1


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TITLE:   GROW YOUR OWN SECURITY: PROF BREEDS BOMB-SPOTTING PLANTS

SOURCE:  Wired, USA

AUTHOR:  Spencer Ackerman

URL:     http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/01/grow-your-own-bomb-detector/

DATE:    26.01.2011

SUMMARY: "The next hydrangea you grow could literally save your life. With the help of the Department of Defense, a biologist at Colorado State University has taught plant proteins how to detect explosives. Never let it be said that horticulture can?t fight terrorism. Picture this at an airport, perhaps in as soon as four years: A terrorist rolls through the sliding doors of a terminal with a bomb packed into his luggage (or his underwear). All of a sudden, the leafy, verdant gardenscape ringing the gates goes white as a sheet. That?s the proteins inside the plants telling authorities that they?ve picked up the chemical trace of the guy?s arsenal."

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GROW YOUR OWN SECURITY: PROF BREEDS BOMB-SPOTTING PLANTS

 

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see the video of the researchers presenting their invention:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kObTt_dR7IM&feature=player_embedded

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The next hydrangea you grow could literally save your life. With the help of the Department of Defense, a biologist at Colorado State University has taught plant proteins how to detect explosives. Never let it be said that horticulture can?t fight terrorism.

Picture this at an airport, perhaps in as soon as four years: A terrorist rolls through the sliding doors of a terminal with a bomb packed into his luggage (or his underwear). All of a sudden, the leafy, verdant gardenscape ringing the gates goes white as a sheet. That?s the proteins inside the plants telling authorities that they?ve picked up the chemical trace of the guy?s arsenal.

It only took a small engineering nudge to deputize a plant?s natural, evolutionary self-defense mechanisms for threat detection. ?Plants can?t run and hide,? says June Medford, the biologist who?s spent the last seven years figuring out how to deputize plants for counterterrorism. ?If a bug comes by, it has to respond to it. And it already has the infrastructure to respond.?

That would be the ?receptor? proteins in its DNA, which respond naturally to threatening stimuli. If a bug chews on a leaf, for instance, the plant releases a series of chemical signals called terpenoids ? ?a cavalry call,? Medford says, that thickens the leaf cuticle in defense.

Medford and her team designed a computer model to manipulate the receptors: Basically, the model instructs the protein to react when coming in contact with chemicals found in explosives or common air or water pollutants.

?The computer program designs how the protein, which detects things, and explosive or environmental pollutant interact,? Medford explains to Danger Room. ?We translate the language from the protein back to the DNA, and encode what we want in the DNA.? Her team published its findings Wednesday in the journal PLoS One.

It all started in 2003 with a Darpa program to grow circuitry. Back then, Medford heard about a program from the far-out Pentagon research arm called Biological Input/Output Systems, geared to produce ?rational design and engineering of genetic regulatory circuits, signal-transduction pathways and metabolism.?

The program was essentially a call for computer-designed receptors. ?I was a plant biologist,? Medford recalls, ?I thought, ?Wouldn?t it be cool if we put it all together, like Reese?s peanut butter and chocolate.??

That led to a $2 million grant from Darpa, with the Office of Naval Research kicking in another million. But by far the biggest benefactor to Medford?s research is the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which last year gave her a $7.9 million grant to get the bomb-sniffing ferns from the lab to the real world.

Right now, Medford estimates she?s three to four years out. Her labs have genetically designed plants blanching white when they come into contact with TNT. But that?s in a research lab, where the amount of light is constant, ?no wind, no rain, no bugs, no people dumping coffee.?

Still, with the Department of Homeland Security unsure how to field nonintrusive technology for detecting bombs at public events, there?s a premium on sensors that double as a sweet-smelling garden. Medford says she?s ?going back and forth? with DHS, but won?t disclose more than that.

One big problem: Medford probably thinks it?s not feasible to get the plants to react to ammonium nitrate, a common chemical used for homemade bombs in Afghanistan (and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing) since, after all, it?s found in fertilizer.

Eventually, Medford expects to bring the bomb-detecting plants to market through genetically modified seedlings. Whatever it costs, it?s got to be less than the $100,000 to $200,000 that a backscatter ?junk scanner? can run.

The reaction of the plant depends on the concentration of the chemical it comes into proximity with. Medford says her goal is to get her plants as sensitive as a dog?s nose.

And the best part? Because the proteins can live in any plant, there?s no specific vegetation that couldn?t become a sensor. Get ready for grow houses designing terror-fighting purple kush. That?s the kindest bud of all.



                                  PART 2

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TITLE:   RE-ENGINEERED PLANTS MAY ROOT OUT TERRORISM THREATS

SOURCE:  The Denver Post, USA

AUTHOR:  Bruce Finley

URL:     http://www.denverpost.com/recommended/ci_17210850

DATE:    27.01.2011

SUMMARY: "A government-backed Colorado State University scientist has re-engineered plants so that they can detect explosives, air pollution and toxic chemicals. Plants fixed with custom-made proteins in biologist June Medford?s lab signal the presence of potentially deadly vapors by turning from green to white. Military and Homeland Security research directors on Wednesday said they envision wide applications for the genetically modified plants positioned in buildings, war zones and cities where terrorists could set up covert bombmaking factories."

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RE-ENGINEERED PLANTS MAY ROOT OUT TERRORISM THREATS

A government-backed Colorado State University scientist has re-engineered plants so that they can detect explosives, air pollution and toxic chemicals. Plants fixed with custom-made proteins in biologist June Medford?s lab signal the presence of potentially deadly vapors by turning from green to white.

Military and Homeland Security research directors on Wednesday said they envision wide applications for the genetically modified plants positioned in buildings, war zones and cities where terrorists could set up covert bombmaking factories.

?If you take something into Denver International Airport, like an explosive for a plane, my plants are going to turn white,? said Medford, 52. ?That?s going to get the security guys on you.?

But none are deployed yet. And the plants, as currently engineered, take more than three hours to change colors.

There?s also the problem of genetically modified plants spreading on their own or cross-pollinating with other plants.

Medford?s creations contain genes resistant to antibiotics and herbicides. Today they?re growing inside refrigerator-sized chambers in a locked, limited-access lab on CSU?s Fort Collins campus. Federal laws regulate genetic modification of plants; the U.S. Department of Agriculture is charged with ensuring the plants are not released.

Medford said she?s working on ways to remove objectionable genes and also to sterilize the modified plants so they could not spread on their own.

The Defense Department?s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, launched Medford?s plant research in 2003 with a $500,000 grant. The Office of Naval Research in 2006 kicked in $1 million. The Department of Homeland Security also funded early research.

Now the Pentagon?s Defense Threat Reduction Agency has granted $7.9 million for Medford and her team of about 30 researchers to speed up plant detection and color change and, then, to test ?plant sentinels? outside the lab.

Homeland Security officials said strategic placement of the plants could help reach a goal of deploying a decentralized, nationwide system for detecting explosives.

?Because you could engineer these plants any way you want, you could make them highly selective,? said Doug Bauer, the Homeland Security explosives research program manager in Washington, D.C.

?Our hope is if these plants could be located ubiquitously, we might be able to detect explosives at the point they are being assembled,? he said. ?You would have a much greater opportunity for first-responders to interdict and disrupt that activity.?

Homeland Security agents are interested in adaptations so that only agents using infrared technology could see plant color changes, Bauer said.

Another possibility: Police could use the plants to enforce drug prohibitions, Bauer said. ?Such sentinels,? he said, ?could be very inexpensive.?

Military strategists are brainstorming applications aimed at protecting soldiers from roadside bombs and other perils of war.

?You could potentially have potted plants that you could bring someplace,? said Linda Chrisey, bioscience technology program director in the Office of Naval Research.

?You might have the plants on a convoy route,? Chrisey said, ?or in buildings you were concerned about? ? as well as in areas littered with land mines: ?If you didn?t quite know where things were buried, you could use the plants to help alert you to which areas you need to concentrate on.?

The plants also could be deployed to sniff for greenhouse gases and other industrial pollution.

Medford and colleagues at Duke University and the University of Washington began their work using computers to redesign naturally occurring plant proteins called receptors.

Then Medford started dipping plants in a bacteria solution, which allowed them to pick up the custom receptors. Once a plant?s genetic structure has been altered, its receptors can detect a pollutant or explosive in air or soil near the plant. When a plant detects the substance, new internal signaling causes the plant to lose its green color and turn white.

Peer-reviewed research results are to be published his week in the science journal PLoS ONE.

While her plants respond to an explosive in hours, researchers said improvements in progress probably will reduce the response time to a few minutes.

?Having cellphones, having social media, having the Internet ? this is empowering people,? Medford said. ?What I see our technology doing is empowering people to know if their air and water is clean.?