July 13, 2024

Plants have been all the rage in the science community. Recently, UC Riverside researchers were able to solve an ‘engineering puzzle’ by modifying a plant to turn red when it senses toxic chemicals, according to universityofcalifornia.edu. 

 Dr. Patrick Schacht, associate professor of biochemistry, discussed the difficulties of this scientific feat.

 “It’s part of an interesting area of research which is taking receptors and modifying them. Receptors are the mechanisms for taking information from outside and responding in some way internally. And these receptors on the surface can be modified to change structure. This research is looking at, ‘How can we look at this compound that we want a receptor to do and modify the protein structure so that it will grab this compound instead of something else?’ It’s actually not very easy. It’s really, really tricky to get it to fold just right because of the complexities of protein folding,” Schacht said. 

In 2016, MIT engineers modified spinach plants to be able to detect explosives and wirelessly relay that information to a handheld device similar to a smartphone, according to news.mit.edu. By 2017, they figured out how to get plants to glow – a potential Eco-friendly alternative to a night light. But why are plants the chosen object for manipulation?

“If you don’t use a living system, you need a lot of technology to do it  [modifications]. Plants are incredibly complex, every living thing is incredibly complex so it has so much machinery built into it that if we can leverage that existing machinery then it’s more effective. Plants are also so easy to propagate. That’s the whole idea of a genetically modified organism is that we can repurpose it in some way. What we’re able to do biologically is far more precise than what we can do mechanically,” Schacht said. 

Schacht explained that plants are a lot more reliable and cheaper than things such as sensors. He compared it to test censors that were instilled in airports post 9/11 that were very expensive and sensitive, going off all the time due to detecting the wrong things or small things that were similar. 

“So if we could get a plant, you have a protein grabbing it, not a mechanical structure. A lot of [sensors] were using protein built-in things, part of what made them expensive. Once you make [the plant], you can just reproduce it. That’s not an expensive process,” he said. 

The plant could be especially helpful for farmers to detect pesticides that are harmful to humans and could possibly one day be used in people’s homes to detect things such as if the water isn’t safe. 

“[The modified plants] grow basically like weeds, the species they are using is not something that requires a lot of help to maintain, and if they turn red, then you know that’s being used in the area. It would be a good way to be able to detect, ‘Is there someone near me using illegal pesticides that’s drifting onto my field?’You don’t need a Ph.D. in genetic engineering-type research in order to go and use this, you just need to be able to tell the difference between green and red,” Schacht said. 

Jack Brown, junior creative writing major, is interested in the possibility of being able to own one of the modified plants. 

“It would be cool. You know how people have green thumbs? I have a black thumb so the plant wouldn’t live, but it would be cool while it lasted. However, it would probably be impractical in comparison to other devices that could detect stuff,” Brown said. 

Ethan Freese, junior creative writing major, gave an example of one of these other devices: a water filter. 

“We already have water filters for that exact purpose of determining if water is safe to drink or not. And for more dangerous chemicals, like smoke detectors, those would already be going off by the time the plant detected it – I would think. It would ultimately be unnecessary. It would be like needing to feed and water your smoke detector every morning,” Freese said. 

However, Schacht emphasized that this is only the beginning of the type of plant modifications we might see in the future. 

“Plants are so complicated we don’t fully understand everything. We think we understand what is going on, but it’s really 10 times more complicated than we understand it to be. If you were to feed a DNA sequence into a computer, even the best supercomputer here on earth, it could chop away at that for years and still not be able to tell you what the structure is going to be. Where we’re at right now, we can only do small modifications. A lot of what is going into the research is how could we leverage what we know and make a prediction about it an inch away from what we know. And then two inches away. And then kind of just taking what we know and then extending it and a fair bit of that becomes trial and error. Some these will work great, some won’t work great, we’ll find out,” Schacht said. 

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