The US Military Is Bio-Engineering Plants for Surveillance Purposes
While it may sound bizarre, DARPA is looking at these "advanced plant technologies" to provide ways of monitoring environments for potential enemy activity, essentially using the plants as an early warning of attack from various biochemical weapons. These genetically modified plants would be able to sense what's going into the soil, and actually alert the military when something is wrong (if they detect radiation, pathogens, etc).
It sounds like the plan is to use data communicated from bio-engineered flora in order to catch criminals or terrorists who may be using materials that can be detected in the air. According to program manager Blake Bextine, plants are naturally good at sensing those sorts of things, but we can't monitor them easily because a plant can't just pick up the phone and leave a anonymous tip:
Put in less crazy-sounding terms, DARPA thinks they can engineer plants to be hypersensitive to chemicals and other stimuli, to the point that they react to them in a way humans could actually monitor.
For example, imagine how useful it would be to develop a plant that could sniff out explosives or contraband materials (using the word "sniff" loosely), for deployment in airports and public places around the world. This could be a phenomenal aid to peacekeeping methods, as it would give authorities a useful permanent way to ensure that potential terrorist targets are safe and secure.
Indeed, in some cases these plants could potentially be used as an effective security system, tipping the feds off to the presence of covert military forces that might be sneaking through forests in an attempt to avoid security cameras and other traditional forms of security. It sounds crazy, but DARPA apparently sees something in this research.
New @DARPA program envisions #plants as discreet, self-sustaining sensors capable of reporting via remotely monitored, programmed responses to environmental stimuli https://t.co/xPtXpoUhQJ #synbio #plantsci #plantscience #geneediting #bioengineering #biotech pic.twitter.com/MQ3XdWwz4y— SynBioBeta (@SynBioBeta) November 20, 2017
While the initial plan is to have plants specifically watching out for anomalies in the local environment that could point to impending attacks, that's only going to be the beginning. If DARPA manages to find a way to make their advanced plants more capable of reacting to external stimuli like sound or vibrations, this could lead to a sophisticated spy tool that could gather more specific information on anyone nearby.
Here's one way to put things in context: in the Star Wars trilogy of Thrawn novels by Timothy Zahn (which is no longer considered canon, but still worth a read), the Empire has planted Ch'hala trees throughout the Imperial Palace, which the Rebel Alliance turns into a base of operations when they form the New Republic. Throughout the first half of the multi-book story, the Republic forces have no idea how the Imperial Remnant seems to know everything about their plans - until they realize that Ch'hala trees react to sound vibrations, and that the Empire has a method for monitoring these trees even while off-world.
This kind of incredible science fiction technology isn't exactly what DARPA is looking for with their Advanced Plant Technologies program, but if something like this can be produced, then no doubt the US military will be very pleased to put it to use.
Just to be on the safe side, it might be best to be careful with what you get up to the next time you visit your local public park. As the old saying goes, the trees have eyes.