Spy plants
[Representational Image] The Pentagon wants to create genetically engineered spy plants with programmable sensors.Creative Commons

The Pentagon is currently mulling over turning innocent plants into the next generation of intelligence gatherers.

According to the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), the country's researchers have been directed to develop genetically modified plants that will be able to detect and collect relevant data about potential threats.

As part of its Advanced Plant Technologies (APT) programme, the agency plans to pursue technologies to develop special plant-based sensors that are self-sustaining in their environment, and can be remotely monitored using existing hardware.

The plan 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," according to DARPA.

The project will include modifying the genomes of plants in order to program specific types of sensing to make them trigger discreet response mechanisms in the presence of relevant stimuli. According to the agency, this needs to be done without compromising the plants' ability to thrive.

Spy plants
The Pentagon is planning to build special spy plants.Defense Advanced Research Project Agency

"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," an official statement read.

Researchers, meanwhile, have been asked to come up with their own ideas about the feasible types of plants that will best suit the needs of the APT programme.

"Advanced Plant Technologies is a synthetic biology program at heart, and as with DARPA's other work in that space, our goal is to develop an efficient, iterative system for designing, building, and testing models so that we end up with a readily adaptable platform capability that can be applied to a wide range of scenarios," Blake Bextine, the DARPA Program Manager for APT, said in a statement.