DARPA Sets Advanced Plant Technologies Proposers Day for Dec. 12

The idea is to harness plants' natural mechanisms for sensing and responding to environmental stimuli and extend them to detect the presence of certain chemicals, pathogens, radiation, and even electromagnetic signals.

The Biological Technologies Office of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, will host a Proposers Day on Dec. 12 in Arlington, Va., to acquaint the science and technology community with the vision and goals of DARPA's new Advanced Plant Technologies program. A Nov. 17 post on the DARPA website explained the concept of APT. The post explained that APT program looks to plants as "the next generation of intelligence gatherers," and the program will pursue technologies to engineer robust plant-based sensors that are self-sustaining in their environment and can be remotely monitored using existing hardware.

The event will be webcast for those who want to participate remotely, but advance registration is required for both the physical meeting and the webcast, and the registration deadline is Dec. 6, or when capacity is reached, and Dec. 11 for webinar only registrations, or until webinar capacity is reached.

The idea is to harness plants' natural mechanisms for sensing and responding to environmental stimuli and extend them to detect the presence of certain chemicals, pathogens, radiation, and even electromagnetic signals. "APT aims to modify the genomes of plants in order to program in these specific types of sensing and trigger discreet response mechanisms in the presence of relevant stimuli, and do so in a way that does not compromise the plants’ ability to thrive. If the program is successful, it will deliver a new sensing platform that is energy independent, robust, stealthy, and easily distributed. Such sensors could find application outside of the military too, making it possible, for instance, for communities to safely identify landmines or unexploded ordinance leftover from past conflicts or testing grounds," the article explained.

"Plants are highly attuned to their environments and naturally manifest physiological responses to basic stimuli such as light and temperature, but also in some cases to touch, chemicals, pests, and pathogens," said Blake Bextine, the DARPA program manager for APT. "Emerging molecular and modeling techniques may make it possible to reprogram these detection and reporting capabilities for a wide range of stimuli, which would not only open up new intelligence streams, but also reduce the personnel risks and costs associated with traditional sensors."

It will be up to the researchers proposing to APT to determine which plants, stimuli, and modifications they will pursue as proofs of concept. "Initial work on the program will take place in contained laboratory and greenhouse facilities, as well as simulated natural environments, and adhere to all applicable federal regulations with additional oversight from institutional biosafety committees. If the research is successful, later-phase field trials would take place under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service following all standard protocols for plant biosafety," it said. "APT will rely on existing ground-, air-, and space-based technology to remotely monitor plant reporting. Such systems are already capable of measuring plants' temperature, chemical composition, reflectance, and body plan, among other qualities, from a standoff distance. The APT program will not fund development of new hardware for this purpose."

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