DARPA wants to genetically engineer smart plants to act as surveillance devices

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

Noone would suspect a plant of watching or surveilling them, but thanks to DARPA that’s all about to change.

 

This week Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, the bleeding US research arm of the US Department of Defense, announced it’s working on a new project that could change how information is gathered on the battlefield, or in fact anywhere, and the project, dubbed the “Advanced Plant Technologies” project, or APT for short, aims to turn plants into the next generation of surveillance “devices.”

 

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“The APT program will pursue technologies to engineer robust, plant-based sensors that are self-sustaining in their environment and can be remotely monitored using existing hardware,” said the agency in a press announcement, and it’s not the first time DARPA have been playing around with plants, one of their other more recent projects, for example, is trying to figure out how to re-animate dead and dying crops using genetically modified insects, and that’s for starters.

In this case though the APT’s goal is to “boost the natural stimulus response mechanisms” in plants in order to “detect the presence of certain chemicals, pathogens, radiation, and even electromagnetic signals,” and in order to achieve their goals DARPA wants to use the same cutting edge gene editing techniques, such as CRISP-R, that have already been used to grow super cows, and boost plant photosynthesis, to create new, plant based sensors that are “susceptible to these stimuli without harming their natural ability to grow and thrive.”

 

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However, the plan to mutate the plants “far beyond current practice,” modifying multiple complex pathways to trigger “discreet response mechanisms” upon detection of such stimuli is something that’s never been done before so it’s inevitable that it’ll take time to develop.

“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,” said Blake Bextine, the APT’s Program Manager, “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.”

 

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While that’s all good and practical the technology that APT proposes might raise more than just a few concerns. For one, it’s quite easy to imagine some Black Mirror scenario where the plant based sensors could be modified to collect more than just the kind of information that DARPA’s described in their project plan, which is why, apparently, the program will be monitored by a number of independent institutional biosafety committees. And just what kind of experiments APT will perform on exactly which kind of plants will be determined over the coming months. But if you thought that Sunflower in your garden was just standing tall and looking pretty, then look again, one day it might have a DNA based, photo sensitive organic camera staring at you. And scarily, that could actually be possible… say cheese!

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