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Researchers to develop ‘watchdog’ potato plants that can ‘talk’

Researchers at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will work to modify potato plants to detect and report potential environmental threats such as nerve agents, radiation and plant pathogens to soldiers. The aim is also to help protect civilians living in post-conflict settings, and to innovate a new, revolutionary ‘sensor platform’.

Awarded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, also known as DARPA, under its Advanced Plant Technologies program, the 4-year effort will combine the expertise of plant biologists, biochemists and engineers.

The work at UT will mainly focus on engineering of plants for sensing and reporting environmental stimuli to make ‘talking plants’ that can act as ‘watchdogs’. Neal Stewart, a professor of plant sciences in the UT Herbert College of Agriculture will serve as the lead principal investigator of the effort. Stewart is well known in scientific circles for his efforts to use genetic markers to develop sentinel plants that can detect environmental problems or nutritional deficiencies in efforts to help farmers increase yields.

He says the potato plant was chosen for this study because it is the easiest crop plant for engineering both the main genome and the one housed in chloroplasts. “It’s got all the engineering and growth traits that will make for an effective ‘talking plant’,” says Stewart.

While the focus of this project is the development of plant sensors for the military, Stewart hopes that advances gained through this and other efforts in synthetic agricultural biology will eventually result in crops that can tell farmers exactly what, where and when they have problems with pests, water and nutrients in their fields.

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Also of interest – a project of Botanic Gardens Conservation International: ‘Sentinel’ plants to serve on front line against pests and diseases