FORT COLLINS, Colo. (CBS4) - Colorado State University has received and $8 million grant from the Department of Defense. They'll use the money in hopes of growing plants to detect explosives in shopping malls or airports.
Researchers at CSU say they're finding that plants are at least as good, maybe better, than dogs at sniffing out things like explosives and dangerous chemical weapons. Landscaping plants, for example, can look really nice, but also be programmed to change color when there's danger in the air.
"If this plant would sense an explosive or an environmental pollutant, it would turn white," CSU biology professor Dr. June Medford said. "It's a little slow (right now)."
Medford says right now the plants take a couple hours to begin turning white, but she says with more research any kind of plant could be altered to change color in minutes or possibly seconds.
"You can do it for a lot of other plant species, but it's not quite as simple as this," CSU researcher Pete Bowerman said.
Researchers dunk the plants in custom-made bacteria that changes the plant genetically to make it sensitive to anything from TNT to radon.
"They can detect multiple substances and they can turn different colors," Medford said.
Security at places like airports could well have an entirely different look if plants are doing the screening.
"Instead of that nasty line at DIA that can wind on forever and ever and ever, you would go through a beautiful garden area. Now in my garden area we would have a variety of plants that would detect a variety of those nasty things that a terrorist might take in," Medford said.
Medford says cameras could detect the color changes automatically to alert security.
"We can then take the 10 people that happened to go by those plants at that time and those 10 people will be patted down, not the hundreds and thousands and everybody that has to have it done right now," Medford said.
The next step in the research is to get the plants out of the controlled environment of the lab and perfect them so they don't give false alarms when someone pours out their cup of coffee or walks by with the wrong perfume, for example.
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