Nov 12, 2018
Researchers tab potatoes in Department of Defense project to create ‘talking plant’

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Tennessee believe they can genetically modify potato plants to detect potential threats. Their findings could mean big news for growers, as well as an unlikely entity: The U.S. Department of Defense.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) could fund up to $7.5 million to MIT and UT Institute of Agriculture researchers to find out if they can modify plants to be sensors for battlefield dangers, such as nerve gas and radiation.

Neal Stewart, a professor at UT’s Herbert College of Agriculture, hopes the long-term effects of the study will aid growers, however.

“(The hope is) 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,” said Patricia McDaniels of the UTIA’s marketing and communications department.

Stewart said 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,’” he said. “Potato even makes a convenient storage organ — the tuber — which is the plant’s battery.”

In accordance with DARPA requirements, the initial research will be conducted entirely in contained facilities with all biosafety features in place.

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