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Colorado State researches innovative bio and video detection technologies

Prof. June Medford

Colorado State University is using over $8 million in Defense Department grants to develop bomb-detecting capabilities in plants and smart video surveillance systems.

CSU’s Department of Biology said it is developing ways to “teach” certain plants to change color when in the presence of explosive materials, while another CSU researcher is teaching computers to “learn” from what they see and spit out physical descriptions that can be shared quickly and remotely.

CSU bio researcher Prof. June Medford and team of biologists have shown plants can serve as highly specific detectors for environmental pollutants and explosives.

The group, according to the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE, is working on a developing computer-designed detection traits in plants by rewiring their natural signaling process so the plant turns from green to white when chemicals are detected in air or soil. The university said the work  is an important step in a long process, but could eventually be used for a wide range of applications such as security in airports or shopping malls, or monitoring for pollutants such as radon in a home.

“The idea to make detector plants comes directly from nature,” Medford said. “Plants can’t run or hide from threats, so they’ve developed sophisticated systems to detect and respond to their environment. We’ve ‘taught’ plants how to detect things we’re interested in and respond in a way anyone can see, to tell us there is something nasty around.”

Financial support for the research was provided by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Office of Naval Research, the Bioscience Discovery Evaluation Grant Program through the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate and Gitam Technologies.

Medford and her team also recently received a three-year, $7.9 million grant from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency in the U.S. Department of Defense to take the discovery described in PLoS ONE from her CSU research laboratory to the “real-world.”

Based on research so far, detection abilities of the plants are similar to or better than those of dogs, according to Medford. The detection traits could be used in any plant and could detect multiple pollutants at once – changes that can also be detected by satellite, she said.

Several laboratories used a computer program to redesign naturally occurring proteins called receptors, according to CSU. The re-designed receptors specifically recognize a pollutant or explosive. Medford’s lab then modifies these computer redesigned receptors to function in plants, and targets them to the plant cell wall where they can recognize pollutants or explosives in the air or soil near the plant. The plant detects the substance and activates an internal signal that causes the plant to lose its green color, turning the plants white.

Medford will use her team of some 30 undergraduate and graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to focus on such factors as speeding up detection time. The initial or first-generation plants respond to an explosive in hours, but improvements are underway to reduce the response time to a few minutes, according to the researchers.

Another $625,000 DARPA grant is allowing a CSU computer scientist to “teach” computers to take pictures and describe the pictures in words and could eventually help the U.S. military with remote surveillance.

CSU Associate Professor Bruce Draper and his team are working to get computers to learns what they see through video surveillance, describe it in words and share the information in real-time without human involvement. The application could aid not only remote surveillance in military operations, but in other security-oriented applications.

“Right now, if the military wants to monitor a village in Afghanistan or Iraq, they have to have remote cameras with someone watching them,” Draper said. “This could someday allow them to use cameras they don’t have to watch. They could receive e-mailed text descriptions about what’s going on at these sites.”


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