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Bomb Detecting Plants To Root Out Terrorists

samzenpus posted more than 3 years ago | from the plants-vs.-terrorists dept.

Security 55

Hugh Pickens writes writes "The Denver Post Reports that a biologist at Colorado State University has re-engineered plants so that they can detect explosives, air pollution and toxic chemicals, signaling the presence of potentially deadly vapors by turning from green to white. 'If you take something into Denver International Airport, like an explosive for a plane, my plants are going to turn white,' says June Medford, who developed the system. 'That's going to get the security guys on you.' Military and Homeland Security research directors say they envision wide applications for the genetically modified plants positioned in buildings, war zones and cities where terrorists could set up covert bomb-making factories and add that strategic placement of the plants could help reach a goal of deploying a decentralized, nationwide system for detecting explosives. 'Our hope is if these plants could be located ubiquitously, we might be able to detect explosives at the point they are being assembled,' says Doug Bauer, the Homeland Security explosives research program manager. 'You would have a much greater opportunity for first-responders to interdict and disrupt that activity.'"

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55 comments

This or a DNA test (2)

alphatel (1450715) | more than 3 years ago | (#35037614)

Works great as long as you can wait a few hours for the plant to change color.

Re:This or a DNA test (0)

goombah99 (560566) | more than 3 years ago | (#35037858)

Wrong,
      Chemical changes can happen in seconds. Just your fingers typing on the keyboard has produced the turn over of countless molecules. How quickly can you smell something that makes your gut wretch?. How quickly can you suffocate? these are all biochemical reactions. Many proteins have a lifetime of minutes.

Re:This or a DNA test (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35038416)

How quickly have you seen a plant do anything?

Re:This or a DNA test (1, Informative)

Shadow of Eternity (795165) | more than 3 years ago | (#35038796)

Venus flytraps close in less than a second, and mimosa pudica will fold in on themselves very quickly after being touched. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0LFBM3hOLs)

Re:This or a DNA test (1)

Goldsmith (561202) | more than 3 years ago | (#35041622)

So the peer reviewed article claims it takes 24-48 hours for plants to detect these changes. It's not as easy as just saying that chemistry happens fast. Binding TNT to the receptor on the plant sets of a chain of interactions which cause certain DNA sequences to be expressed, leading to production of enzymes which destroy pigments in the plant. There's a lot of membrane crossing and diffusion involved, and that all takes time.

The mammalian sense of smell takes about 0.2 seconds to register a response electrochemically. It's completely different, there's no genetic signaling involved. Electronic sensors using mammalian proteins can respond at a similar speed. (Those proteins would not function the same way in a plant, in case you're wondering.)

Of course, sensors which use something other than proteins respond even faster, don't fall apart after a few days, and can be used in all kinds of weather.

17th century tech? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35037954)

Um.... isn't this just a fancy canary in a coal mine?

Re:This or a DNA test (1)

Defenestrar (1773808) | more than 3 years ago | (#35037976)

You're quite right. There's a lot of applications where you have plenty of time - such as locating areas where bomb building activities may be in progress, or searching out land mines. You could also (possibly) tell when a bag run through security contained explosives - I know people aren't usually checking bags three hours early, but you could still isolate the likely flights/destinations if in the realm of airport security.

Also, depending on the biological/kinetic pathways - that three hours may be very shorten-able. Use the easy plant for development, but then splice it into a venus fly-trap (ok - so that's not what would really happen, but it's an easy way for people to remember that sometimes plants do move fast).

The color fade may take three hours for a human to notice, but if you tag the process with a fluorescent or have an optical detector (electronics) check for a spectroscopic change (a clip on leaf spectrometer could probably be done for a few dollars), then the electronics could trigger an alarm much more quickly (and less publicly).

Re:This or a DNA test (1)

RockDoctor (15477) | more than 3 years ago | (#35046438)

There's a lot of applications where you have plenty of time - such as locating areas where bomb building activities may be in progress,

Like ... pretty-much anywhere within a couple of days travel time of an airport (not necessarily the closest airport.

You could also (possibly) tell when a bag run through security contained explosives

Sorry, didn't you take class Terrorism 1.0.1 when you first got a mobile phone? It was obvious then (mid-1990s) that these devices gave remote (as in "distance from detonator") energisation (approx. equivalent to "detonate") capabilities. So, from that time, being within physical reach of your bomb has been unnecessary.

That's most of a generation now. Didn't your daddy tell you?

Just to make it plain (as if you hadn't thought this through for yourself ; obviously if you had thought it through, you'd already be sweating in a torture camp in the USA state in Cuba) : Being able to detect a bomb when it goes onto a plane is only one tiny part of securing against un-planned explosions at airports.

Hell, what is this thing about airports? Before Monday it was utterly obvious that any place where a significant gathering of people happens is a target. Oh, sorry, Spanish commuter-train bombs of 2006, or thereabouts.

This is history, not news. Queen Anne's dead, don'tcha know?

Plants... Root... out.... terrorists (1)

kmdrtako (1971832) | more than 3 years ago | (#35037638)

Ha ha, I see what you did there.

But if you're trying to compete with theregister(.co.uk) you've got your work cut out for you. Good luck.

Any relation to Jack? (1)

gfreeman (456642) | more than 3 years ago | (#35037654)

Doug Bauer, the Homeland Security explosives research program manager

Really?

Re:Any relation to Jack? (2)

c0d3g33k (102699) | more than 3 years ago | (#35037950)

It's a common enough name for those of germanic origin. It means "Farmer".

Your joke falls flat, because reality is much more mundane than fiction.

Re:Any relation to Jack? (0)

khallow (566160) | more than 3 years ago | (#35038240)

It means "Farmer".

Really?

Re:Any relation to Jack? (1)

jc42 (318812) | more than 3 years ago | (#35039896)

It means "Farmer".

Really?

Yeah, really. You'd think that "Bauer" would be derived from "bauen" (build), and it might well be, but it's an illustration of the fact that German is no more logical than any other human-developed language. There are a number of German-English dictionaries online; go look it up.

Re:Any relation to Jack? (1)

newcastlejon (1483695) | more than 3 years ago | (#35044920)

Yeah, really. You'd think that "Bauer" would be derived from "bauen" (build), and it might well be, but it's an illustration of the fact that German is no more logical than any other human-developed language. There are a number of German-English dictionaries online; go look it up.

No more logical, perhaps, but there's something about the word Handschuh in particular that I find beautifully elegant.

Re:Any relation to Jack? (1)

bar-agent (698856) | more than 3 years ago | (#35041336)

It's a common enough name for those of germanic origin. It means "Farmer".

So, very familiar with fertilizer, ammonium nitrate, things of that nature?

And plants too. Well, he seems to be the right man for the job.

Ammonium Nitrate (4, Funny)

coolmoose25 (1057210) | more than 3 years ago | (#35037682)

Read a different story on this and my favorite quote was that it would probably never be able to pick up on a bomb made with Ammonium Nitrate, because, well, that's fertilizer...

Re:Ammonium Nitrate (1)

TheCarp (96830) | more than 3 years ago | (#35039232)

Not true at all, I have several plants that will detect fertilizer. In the presence of sun and water, it makes them grow like crazy.

Now, where is my TSA money? I am pretty sure that come late spring I will be able to outfit half their facilities with fertilizer detecting vines. I would happily do it for... $20 million. A bargain really.

Mine detection (5, Interesting)

The Iconoclast (24795) | more than 3 years ago | (#35037702)

This is something they've been kicking around for minefield detection for a while. Seed a purported minefield with grass that behaves differently in the presence of explosive, then wait and you can see where to avoid and send the demolition crews.

Re:Mine detection (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35038250)

Here's a cheaper and more practical solution:

Seed a purported minefield with grass and put some sheep in it.

Whatever blows up you eat (or not) and whatever doesn't you do whatever you do with sheep.

Re:Mine detection (1)

quixote9 (999874) | more than 3 years ago | (#35042584)

Seeding a minefield with indicator grass, I could see that working. Potted plants at airports catching passing terrorists? No.

I can hear them now: Ground crew to Terminal Control: "We need another delay on Flight 36983. The aspidistra at Gate 9 next to the guy with the briefcase may be kinda light green. We need more time!"

Root out (1)

Arancaytar (966377) | more than 3 years ago | (#35037778)

Groan.

Re:Root out (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35037938)

I agree. Something as simple as genetically engineered fish-tank decorative plants are growing uncontrollably in European waterways. No No NO. Don't touch that filthy thing little boy. Here let me change your diaper. Now go sit in your fenced in pen and suck your thumb.

No absolutely not. DON'T go ask your Mother either.

I SAID NO.

or i can (1)

nimbius (983462) | more than 3 years ago | (#35037800)

continue building my covert explosives factory but before i head back to it after lunch, buy a box of salt or a bottle of weed killer. terrorists: 1, magic rainbow plant: 0.

Re:or i can (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35039172)

If they are watching the plants for color changes I'm sure they'll notice the plants dying.

That will get the homeland security guys on you?? (1)

djlemma (1053860) | more than 3 years ago | (#35037850)

Obviously this whole concept is a bit silly, but how exactly would these plants be able to isolate WHICH passenger was carrying bomb materials, if they happened to turn white?

And as somebody else mentioned, I'm sure it takes a while for the plants to change color..

And I'm sure there are MANY explosives (fertilizer based?) that these things probably wouldn't detect, and probably many things that would cause false positives..

I suppose it might be usefult to plant these things around suspected bomb-making locations, but I'd think that people would get savvy really quick and take a lawnmower to their property....

Re:That will get the homeland security guys on you (1)

hedwards (940851) | more than 3 years ago | (#35038490)

The same way that the check points prevent suicide bombers from hitting the line. This would enable them to stop planes from departing or people from boarding them and just ensure that the terrorists hit the people waiting to be screened.

This is going to be about as helpful as those scanners are, but less likely to result in sexual assault charges being filed against TSA employees.

Re:That will get the homeland security guys on you (1)

AnotherBrian (319405) | more than 3 years ago | (#35042024)

This is going to be about as helpful as those scanners are, but less likely to result in sexual assault charges being filed against TSA employees.

Apparently you haven't seen the Japanese remake of 'Little Shop of Horrors'.

Obvious video game reference (1)

Captain Spam (66120) | more than 3 years ago | (#35037960)

I was wondering what Popcap was going to do for the sequel to Plants vs. Zombies. I guess Plants vs. Terrorists would work well enough.

From the TSA, where delay == security! (2)

RealGrouchy (943109) | more than 3 years ago | (#35037962)

This makes sense. When you walk into the airport, you're given a flower pot with soil in it and a seed inside. By the time you get to the security gate, the seed will have grown to a flower. The TSA officers will then let you in based on the color of the flower.

This won't take any more time than usual, because waiting in line at the airport is already like watching plants grow.

- RG>

Re:From the TSA, where delay == security! (1)

Archtech (159117) | more than 3 years ago | (#35038442)

The best part of it is that the TSA is actually setting up the terrorists' next big target for them: the huge queues waiting to go through "security".

That is assuming there are any terrorists (other than Americans) trying to blow things up in America, which seems extremely doubtful. The whole rationale for TSA's existence reminds me of a joke I heard at school when I was about 6: "Why do elephants have yellow feet?" "So they won't be seen when hiding upside down in bowls of custard". "That's ridiculous, I've never seen an elephant in a bowl of custard". (You can see where this is heading, can't you?). "That shows how well it works!" (boom boom).

Hermetically sealed explosives anyone? (1)

OzPeter (195038) | more than 3 years ago | (#35037978)

Terrorist 1 builds bomb in remote location in a "clean room". Hermetically seals it and drops it off at location A.

Terrorist 2 picks the bomb from location A and and chemically cleans/sterilizes the outside. Then drops it off at location B

Terrorist 3 picks the bomb up at location B and then delivers it to the target.

Oh and BTW Terrorist 3 detonates it in the crowd waiting to get to the security checkpoint before any testing for explosives will be done.

Re:Hermetically sealed explosives anyone? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35038146)

No no, that's much too simple.
Terrorist A puts the bomb in a plastic bag.
Terrorist B puts the bomb in another plastic bag.
Terrorist C puts the bomb in a duffle bag.
Terrorist D takes the bag and gets blown up by spam on the way to the airport.

Unnecessary (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35038074)

Just send out more spam.

this sounds good on paper if (1)

nopainogain (1091795) | more than 3 years ago | (#35038086)

this sounds good on paper if you can get the plants a: close enough to all passengers one at a time, and b: able to have a short enough range not to detect false positives. for lack of a funnier reference, remember the movie Airplane where the army guys with big guns all walked on board the plane and the little old lady got the bum's rush? we dont need the TSAs doing a michael jackson on every other 6 year old kid when someone who caused the plant's response is already 100yds away.

Stink (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35038232)

Would they detect if I stink? Would they turn white in a toilet? If no, I don't have any use for this plants.

False positives make this useless (2)

Required Snark (1702878) | more than 3 years ago | (#35038370)

This system is too easy to defeat. All a troublemaker has to do is get a small amount of the target substance and spread it around to trigger a false alert. For example, just walk in the public areas in front of an airport and sprinkle some powder on the sidewalk and leave. All the people walk in the powder, walk inside and then chaos ensues. This can be done at any scale, so even planing over an entire city will not allow bomb making locations to be located. Although this could be very useful in a limited way, it is not a quick fix for everything.

"For TSA Use Only" (1)

RobertB-DC (622190) | more than 3 years ago | (#35038460)

Awesome idea, and I'd love for a minefield in the spring to look like beautiful-but-deadly Warhol painting.

But I really don't like one aspect of the plants that my tax dollars are paying for. From TFA:

Homeland Security agents are interested in adaptations so that only agents using infrared technology could see plant color changes, Bauer said.

If the plants are going to detect things that blow up, wouldn't it be a Good Thing for us average citizens to be able to use them? Allowing civilians to become projectile-absorbing materials is something terrorists do... not letting us know that we're walking past a dangerous area seems hardly better.

Oh, but the true purpose becomes clear:

Another possibility: Police could use the plants to enforce drug prohibitions, Bauer said. "Such sentinels," he said, "could be very inexpensive."

They're NOT developing this in order to make us safer. There are very few landmines on US soil, after all (though Civil War battlefields might resemble a game of Pac-Man). They're just trying to find a cheap way to put more potheads in prison, so they can learn how to be real criminals. (Damned if I can figure out how that makes me more secure... guess I should just let Big Brother do my thinking for me.)

Feasability? (1)

meerling (1487879) | more than 3 years ago | (#35039478)

How fast does the indicator work? How much trace is needed to cause indication? How many things can it detect? What explosives or other prohibited materials is it incapable of detecting that really should be that is detected by the other systems in place that can already detect what the plant does?

There are a LOT of other questions in addition to these that would need to be answered before even contemplating the possibility of employing a detection system like these plants.

You want fast detection from tiny traces and specific identification of both the source location and material. But I can imagine it being used for watchdogging an area for certain types of contamination, like detecting a dioxin leak from a chemical storage facility or something like that.

Like a dog... (1)

Goboxer (1821502) | more than 3 years ago | (#35040094)

I have heard this described as working like how a dog sniffs explosives.

...

Screw the plant, use a damned dog.

ok, not idiotic, but it still has problems (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35041566)

I do chemical sensor research for a living. I was ready to tear this apart, but decided to read the PLoS paper first.

While I do think DTRA is completely crazy to be funding this at a level of $7 million, they are getting very good sensitivity and selectivity (if the PLoS paper is to be believed) for an unattended ambient air device.

The problem really is, as we've discovered the hard way, a highly technical (this needs a good optics system), inflexible sensor really is no good at all. You can't re-program a plant on the fly like you can an electronic nose system or even (with work) a dog. You can easily fool a camera looking in visible or IR with a handful of dust.

And an airport isn't going to use a sensor that responds in 24 to 48 hours - which is the response time in the actual paper, it's just not helpful. My sensors respond on the scale of 1 minute, and that's considered way too slow for security screening.

I'm interested in the selectivity they claim to be getting. My work with protein based sensors has shown the opposite result. Biology responds to EVERYTHING once you take it out of the lab.

(seriously Slashdot, linking a media release over a PLoS article is like telling people they have to pay for Linux. Please stop doing this kind of thing with the open access journals, you're pissing on the community you grew up with. Can you institute an editorial policy to link to open access scientific papers? Would it be that hard? Why do we scientists go through all the trouble to set this shit up if you're still going to link to some half-wrong, mass-media science bullshit journalism?)

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