DARPA Wants to Turn Plants Into Spies

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is constantly coming up with new ideas to help the United States military carry out its missions and achieve its objectives. One of the latest — and arguably boldest — projects pioneered by DARPA involves turning plants into spies.

The project, dubbed “Advanced Plant Technologies,” seeks to engineer plants for the purpose of identifying chemical and electromagnetic attacks. The general idea is to use monitor plants for signs of chemical or electromagnetic attacks. So, how exactly does DARPA hope to accomplish this?

As explained by DARPA’s Blake Bextine, plants are “attuned” to the environment and typically respond to stimuli. When stressed, for instance, an otherwise healthy plant may turn brown, wither or die. Some of these effects may also occur when plants are exposed to chemical or electromagnetic attacks — and that’s the basis on which the Advanced Plant Technologies project works.

DARPA wants to monitor plants remotely for signs of a chemical or electromagnetic attack. Using satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other technologies, DARPA hopes to use plants as an early detection system. If the plants show signs of stress caused by such an attack, it can give the military a heads up.

DARPA says it will genetically engineer plants to respond to biological and environmental stimuli. If successful, the military can then monitor these plants to determine if and when an attack occurs. It’s important to note, however, that genetically engineering plants require a methodical approach to ensure it doesn’t damage the plants’ ability to survive in its natural environment. If a plant loses one of its defense mechanisms, for instance, it may cease to thrive; thus, negating its potential benefits for use in military applications.

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,” says DARPA’s Blake Bextine.”Emerging molecular and modelling 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.

Of course, there are other ways to monitor a geographic region for signs of a chemical or electromagnetic attack, such as using human spies. This, however, comes with a serious risk of danger — something that DARPA hopes to minimize with its new Advanced Plant Technologies project.