Last week, news broke that a Colorado State University plant biologist had developed technology that would engineer plants to detect dangerous chemicals and contaminants. I spoke with June Medford to get more details about her work — and find out what motivates her mission.
How did you get the inspiration to develop this technology?
It wasn’t so much my idea as it was the fact that in nature, plants can’t run and hide from a threat. They’ve developed some very sophisticated means to sense and respond to their environment.
Getting involved with the group at DARPA was really essential. I met a colleague there, for example, who was designing the computer designed-receptors. People there had very quick read-out systems. I was the plant biologist. I said, We could put all this together. I believe that was in 2003. The way we thought we would do it was wrong, but the idea was right.
Do you actually use the plant’s natural defenses to make it detect and respond to chemicals?
The natural defense was the idea and inspiration. We’ve put in a new gene circuit that includes a detection trait. It’s an input-output system where we can change what the plants detect and change how the plant responds.
Are there specific plants that react to specific chemicals?
The gene circuit can be put into any plant species that you want. The ones we use in the lab we use because they’re relatively inexpensive and easy to work with. We’ve been putting them in those green, leafy plants you see already in shopping malls and office buildings.
Is there an ideal plant?
It can go into any one, but I believe it should not go into our food crops.
In addition to airports, what are other real-world applications for this technology?
I see where they could be used in keeping chemical plants and manufacturing people honest, so they’re not polluting our air and our water. I think the companies that are obeying the rules would like this kind of technology. It would be good to be able to know who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. You could put them downstream from a plant or around a plant. If the plant is really obeying the rules, they deserve applause. If not, call the EPA.
What about in-home use?
Absolutely. They could replace things like carbon monoxide [detectors]. Empowering ordinary people to know if their air and water is clean is really powerful, just as cell phones and the Internet have empowered ordinary people.
What else needs to be done in the lab in order to get this technology out into the world?
We’re really focusing on two main things. First, designing around the ‘noise’ that a plant would deal with. For instance, we’ve grown [the plants] in a growth chamber where the sun always comes up at 8 a.m. and it’s always 25 degrees Celsius and the light’s always good. There’s no rain or wind or bugs or people dumping coffee on the plant. We have to design around those noises that you would have in the real world and then also make it much faster, so we can have a response in minutes, if not seconds.
Why is this work important to you?
If you listened to President Obama’s [State of the Union] speech, we need to be innovative. We need to come up with technologies that are more advanced. It’s what we do well. If we can innovate things that are inexpensive and empowering people, I think we’re doing what we should be doing as Americans.
Photo: June Medford