The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency wants to bioengineer plants so that the military can turn foliage into spies.
Image: Warner Bros.
DARPA calls the Black Mirror-esque effort the Advanced Plant Technologies (APT) program. The end goal doesn't appear to be developing a ficus that narcs on you, but rather organic "discreet, self-sustaining sensors" that can monitor and remotely report threats based on "environmental stimuli". The agency claims it sees flora as the "next generation of intelligence gatherers", though at the moment DARPA only envisions their secret-agent plants being used to detect electromagnetic waves, pathogens, radiation, chemicals and nuclear threats. DARPA also believes the technology could be used by civilians, providing the example of communities that want to use plants to detect landmines.
Based on the information DARPA has released about their plans, it seems that the program would use existing hardware and satellites to remotely monitor the stimuli reactions of the genetically modified plants.
"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," APT program manager Blake Bextine said in a statement. "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."
DARPA began taking proposals for the APT program late last week. The agency's Biological Technologies Office (BTO) is hosting an event for proposers on December 12. The Department of Defence assures us that early research will be done "in contained laboratory and greenhouse facilities, as well as simulated natural environments." The next step would be field trials closely monitored by US Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Presumably, these precautions and protocols are meant to keep their Frankenflower Watcher creations from going rogue and forming a plantae-singularity that annihilates human civilisation to punish us for our sins against Mother Earth.