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Picture this at an airport, perhaps in as soon as four years: A terrorist rolls through the sliding doors of a terminal with a bomb packed into his luggage (or his underwear). All of a sudden, the leafy, verdant gardenscape ringing the gates goes white as a sheet. That’s the proteins inside the plants telling authorities that they’ve picked up the chemical trace of the guy’s arsenal.
It only took a small engineering nudge to deputize a plant’s natural, evolutionary self-defense mechanisms for threat detection. “Plants can’t run and hide,” says June Medford, the biologist who’s spent the last seven years figuring out how to deputize plants for counterterrorism. “If a bug comes by, it has to respond to it. And it already has the infrastructure to respond.”
The goal of the Biological Input/Output Systems (BIOS) program was to develop a toolbox for the rational design and engineering of genetic regulatory circuits, signal transduction pathways, and metabolism. The utility of the toolbox components was demonstrated via the engineering of specific model laboratory organisms. Categories demonstrated include (1) the redesign of signal transduction pathways in plants and bacteria so they can be used together to make new functional signal transduction circuits; (2) the creation of logic circuits constructed out of components responsible for DNA rearrangements; and (3) the regulation of metabolic pathways via genetic regulatory and signal transduction components.
Eventually, Medford expects to bring the bomb-detecting plants to market through genetically modified seedlings. Whatever it costs, it’s got to be less than the $100,000 to $200,000 that a backscatter “junk scanner” can run