It gives Popeye special powers and now it's been given its own. Scientists have nano-engineered spinach plants to detect explosive molecules and send this information via an infrared signal that can be recorded by smartphone cameras.
The spinach leaves were functionalised with nanoparticles that can detect nitroaromatic molecules like TNT.
Plants continually draw up water and nutrients from the soil using their roots, but contaminants in the groundwater are often taken into the plant as well. The nanoparticles in the leaves act as sensors, and fluoresce different amounts based on how much of the contaminant is present.
Because this fluorescence is infra-red, it can be recorded by smartphones, creating wireless real-time chemical monitoring.
According to researchers from MIT who led the study, by modifying the molecule attached to the nanoparticles, the sensors can be adapted for different contaminants.