Electronic and mechanical sensors have been vital for the information collection mission of the U.S. Department of Defense. Relevant technology research is conducted by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has been responsible for advancing technologies such as the VELA satellites and seismographs to ensure Soviet compliance with the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. While the modern need for information is no less urgent, the national security landscape and the challenges of monitoring distributed activity are now more complex.

This is why plants may be recruited as the next generation of intelligence gatherers. DARPA’s new Advanced Plant Technologies (APT) program will pursue technologies to engineer robust, plant-based sensors that are self-sustaining in their environment and can be remotely monitored using existing hardware.

The program is designed to tap natural plant mechanisms for sensing and responding to environmental stimuli and extend them to the detection of certain chemicals, pathogens, radiation and electromagnetic signals. The goal is to modify plant genomes to impart specific types of sensing and trigger discreet response mechanisms in the presence of relevant stimuli. If the program is successful, it will not compromise the plants’ ability to thrive and deliver an energy independent, robust, stealthy and easily distributed sensing platform.

“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 DARPA Program Manager for APT. “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.”

The sensors could also be used by communities to safely identify landmines or unexploded ordinance leftover from past conflicts or testing grounds.

Initial research will take place in contained laboratory and greenhouse facilities, as well as simulated natural environments, and adhere to all applicable federal regulations with additional oversight from institutional biosafety committees. If the research is successful, later-phase field trials would take place under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service following all standard protocols for plant biosafety.

APT will rely on existing ground-, air- and space-based technology to remotely monitor plant reporting. Such systems are already capable of measuring plants’ temperature, chemical composition, reflectance and body plan, among other qualities, from a standoff distance.

Genome modification research is underway to enable plants to signal the presence of chemicals, pathogens or radiation. Source: DARPAGenome modification research is underway to enable plants to signal the presence of chemicals, pathogens or radiation. Source: DARPA

To contact the author of this article, email shimmelstein@globalspec.com