Scientists Find Way to Program Plants to Detect Hazmat

In the not-to-distant future, a hazmat leak could make surrounding plants change color or glow to show they’ve been in contact with hazardous materials.

Initially looking for ways to identify illegal pesticides and synthetic cannabinoids, researchers have found a way to alter plant receptors to react to 20 different chemicals. Julie Bernstein wrote about this in an article for the University of California Riverside.

During drought, plants produce ABA, a hormone that helps them hold on to water. Additional proteins, called receptors, help the plant recognize and respond to ABA. UC Riverside researchers helped demonstrate that these ABA receptors can be easily modified to quickly signal the presence of nearly 20 different chemicals, she wrote.

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The research team’s work in transforming these plant-based molecules is described in a new Nature Biotechnology journal article. This research was developed through a contract with the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center to support the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Advanced Plant Technologies program. The team included scientists from the Medical College of Wisconsin, Michigan State University, and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. This work was facilitated by chemical and biological engineer Timothy Whitehead at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

“It would be transformative if we could develop rapid dipstick tests to know if a dangerous chemical, like a synthetic cannabinoid, is present. This new paper gives others a roadmap to doing that,” said Sean Cutler, a UCR plant cell biology professor and paper co-author.

The research team also showed its testing system can signal the presence of organophosphates, which includes many banned pesticides that are toxic and potentially lethal to humans. Not all organophosphate pesticides are banned but being able to quickly detect the ones that are could help officials monitor water quality without more expensive testing at laboratories.

For this project, the researchers demonstrated the system in laboratory-grown yeast cells. In the future, the team would like to put the modified molecules back into plants that could serve as biological sensors. In that case, a chemical in the environment could cause leaves to turn specific colors or change temperatures.

Although the work focuses on cannabinoids and pesticides, the key breakthrough here is the ability to rapidly develop diagnostics for chemicals using a simple and inexpensive system. “If we can expand this to lots of other chemical classes, this is a big step forward because developing new tests can be a slow process,” said Ian Wheeldon, study co-author and UCR chemical engineer.

To create this system, researchers took advantage of the ABA plant stress hormone’s ability to switch receptor molecules on and off. In the ‘on’ position, the receptors bind to another protein, forming a tight complex that can trigger visible responses, like glowing. Whitehead used state-of-the-art computational tools to help redesign the receptors, which was critical to the work’s success.

“We take an enzyme that can glow in the right context and split it into two pieces. One piece on the switch, and the other on the protein it binds to,” Cutler said. “This trick of bringing two things together in the presence of a third chemical isn’t new. Our advance is showing we can reprogram the process to work with lots of different third chemicals.”

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