bomb-sniffing petunias?

Thanks to She Who Would Not Want To Be Named for sending me a link to a really interesting story in yesterday’s New York Times: Plants have been engineered through the dark arts of gene splicing to detect TNT at a level of sensitivity one hundred times greater than bomb-sniffing dogs.

In the presence of TNT vapors the leaves of the engineered Arabidopsis and tobacco plants blushed from green to white as chlorophyll drained out of the leaves. The process took several hours, so just imagine how slowly an airport check-in would move. Still, I think I’d rather be scanned by a plant than a radiation-emitting strip-search machine.

The research was published Wednesday in PLoS ONE under the catchy title “Programmable Ligand Detection System in Plants through a Synthetic Signal Transduction Pathway.” (Somebody please help scientists come up with titles that make sense to the rest of us.) The title in the Times is maybe even worse, in an insulting way, “Plants that Earn Their Keep.” Do plants have to justify their existence? Why does a plant have to “do something useful” in order to earn a place on this earth? Grrrrrr. Arrogant humans!

Anyway, airline travel has been at the front of my mind recently as I brace for a trip in a few days to Philadelphia. Monday I was brave enough to add the weather report to my desktop. Yikes! I’m not sure that I even recognize the weather icon for last Wednesday. It’s definitely one that’s never appeared on any San Diego forecast I’ve been around for!

In the general Philly area both Longwood Gardens and the Morris Arboretum have conservatories. Unfortunately I’m not likely to have much time to do sightseeing, but it’ll be interesting enough to see what some people call winter. But if there’s anything on the “must see” list, let me know.

Let me finish my ramble by returning briefly to the unpleasant topic of airline terrorism to say a couple words about these photos that were in the news a year ago that many of you recognize.

[ source ]

These are shots of the alleged “underwear-bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, probably taken during while he was attending school in London. I looked quickly at the main subject–really, what can a photograph tell you about a person? Maybe that a seemingly normal-looking person can attempt to do some awful things? Maybe that this person was not so isolated as not feel the peer-pressure to buy a hat with a Nike swoosh?

What I focused on next–and some of you gardeners out there have already guessed it–is the amazing backdrop of colorful foliage. What are those plants?, I asked myself. Then my brain wandered off into other areas: Did the suspect enjoy plants enough to think that this would be a scenic location for a portrait (on at least two occasions, looking at his change in clothing)? Or maybe the photographer dragged the resentful and unwilling subject out into the cold, into these spots with the colorful backgrounds?

[ source ]

I don’t know. The only possible answer I can pull out of all this is that the backdrop is the kind of foliage that people in areas of the world colder than mine get to experience.

Other than that I’m left with questions, only questions…

6 thoughts on “bomb-sniffing petunias?”

  1. Engineer me a plant that can grade papers for me, or edit my own writing, and I’ll get excited. Especially if they are native cultivars to Nebraska. I suppose. I couldn’t live without my four seasons, and feel sorry for you pedestrian-zone people.

  2. We have ice here fairly often and I’ve never seen that icon before.

    I’d spied the headline of the plant article this week, but hadn’t taken the time to read it yet. I wonder if I’d been put off by the headline without realizing it. I was certainly disappointed to find a mis-spelling/typo of “rhododendron” in the very first sentence.

    I hope your travels are fun!

  3. Enjoy your visit to winter!

    My family find it hilarious that I get distracted when watching TV by interesting plants or beautiful planting combinations, and cannot stop myself commenting on them when I should be trying to work out ‘who dunnit’. The “underwear bomber” looks miserable. Perhaps knowing he is planning a suicide mission? Or does he not like the backdrop?

  4. I have insight only into the background plants. The first I would guess Carpinus betulus, the european hornbeam or maybe Parrotia persica; the second the tough Rhus….typhina or glabra. Hard to tell exactly; there’s a guy in the way.

  5. It happened to me…watching Egypt boil with unrest, the camera panning to men carrying a friend away from the turmoil, panning past a…wait! Go back! Was that a Plumeria? Thoughts strayed to how Plumeria would perform in urban Cairo.

    The mind follows the well-trodden path.

  6. Benjamin, new arrivees to Southern California comment on its lack of seasons, but it only takes a year or two to see that that’s not really the case. Our main season off season coincides with the end of the rains in the spring, when so many of our natives slow down, shut down or die back.

    Greg, thanks! Yeah, you’d think “rhododendron” wouldn’t be one of the harder plant names out there…

    Janet, I’m laying out all my winter woolens in preparation. It’ll be an adventure! And as far as the last two photos, I’m glad I’m not the only one thinking the way I do…

    Maggie, thanks for the IDs. A description for the Parrotia says “Persian ironwood prefers cool climates and may not be the best choice for zone 8 landscapes,” which probably explains why I don’t see it around my zone 9b-10 part of the world.

    HB, funny. I’m sure I’d be distracted by a plumeria in Cairo as well. It’d get me thinking about how there are many other parts of the world like mine where a liberal helping of applied water could let you grow a huge number of plants.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *