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Modified plants to 'sniff out' explosives

DENVER, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- U.S. researchers say they've re-engineered plants to detect explosives, air pollution and toxic chemicals, turning from green to white in their presence.

Military and security experts say the genetically modified plants could be positioned in buildings, war zones and cities where terrorists could set up covert bomb-making factories, The Denver Post reported Thursday.

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Colorado State University biologist June Medford said the plants in her laboratory, modified with custom-made proteins, would be sensitive to deadly vapors or traces of explosives.

"If you take something into Denver International Airport, like an explosive for a plane, my plants are going to turn white," Medford, 52, said. "That's going to get the security guys on you."

But the plants are a long way from deployment. As currently engineered, they take more than three hours to change colors.

There's also the danger of genetically modified plants spreading or cross-pollinating with other plants.

Medford said she's looking for ways to sterilize the modified plants so they could not spread on their own.

The Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency has given Medford and her team of about 30 researchers $7.9 million to speed up plant detection and color change and to eventually test "plant sentinels" outside.

"Our hope is if these plants could be located ubiquitously, we might be able to detect explosives at the point they are being assembled," Doug Bauer, the Homeland Security explosives research program manager in Washington, said. "You would have a much greater opportunity for first-responders to interdict and disrupt that activity."

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