A research team led by scientists from the University of California, Riverside has engineered a plant that turns red in the presence of a banned toxic pesticide, opening the door to future uses of plants as barometers of the surrounding environment.
According to the research paper published by this team in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, scientists first worked to understand the mechanism of action of a protein called “abscisic acid,” which actually works as a thermometer or measure that helps plants adapt to surrounding environmental changes.
Abscisic acid is produced during drought, and when its concentration rises, it travels to specific receptors that cause the plant to sense the threat of drought and begin to close the pores in its leaves and stems so that less water evaporates.
According to the new study, scientists worked on abscisic acid receptors, and discovered through experiments that they can be trained to bind to chemicals other than abscisic acid. Once the receptors bind to a new chemical, the plant responds by turning beet red.
In the experiments, this chemical was “azinphos ethyl”, an insecticide banned in many countries because it is toxic to humans. Thus, if plants in public parks, for example, were equipped with this new technology, it would give people an indication of the presence of a dangerous insecticide in their surroundings.
This is not the first time that scientists have worked in this field to transform plants into biological sensors, but it is the first time that they have avoided harming the plant’s ability to function normally in all other aspects. In particular, scientists fear modifying the plant’s original metabolism, and thus spoiling the plant’s ability to function normally in all other aspects. The plant stops growing towards the light or stops using water.
According to a press release from the University of California, Riverside, as part of the same experiment, scientists engineered another organism, yeast, to show a response to two different chemicals at the same time. The purpose of this experiment was to test whether it was possible to apply the same experiments to more than one chemical substance in The same object.
The team is currently trying to study the possibility of designing a single plant to sense 100 banned pesticides, to serve as an integrated sensing center that helps in agriculture in general.
Researchers now know that the matter is still at a primitive stage and will require regulatory approvals that may take many years to bring it into the public domain, but this experimental success opens the door to various future applications.
For example, wastewater monitoring research studies levels of pollutants that could indicate societal problems, such as escalating levels of narcotic substances, antidepressants, or painkillers, in which this new technology could be useful.
In addition, these types of plants, by distributing them in different areas of cities and developing them to be able to sense pollutants in the water and air, alert people to high levels of lead, for example, carbon dioxide, or other things beyond the safe limit.
In the future, they could even be used as defensive tools against biological or chemical warfare, sensing the presence of a chemical component, and sounding an alarm warning people of its presence in the area.