What if plant color was an indicator of soil quality?

Our project for the 2021 Biodesign Challenge explores what would happen if an invisible problem was made visible. Soil pollutants like arsenic and lead can impoverish urban ecosystems, but it’s difficult to draw attention to a problem that is hidden underground. SignalSprout plants change color based on the level of soil pollution, empowering community members to lobby for change from their own backyards.


Harmful soil pollutants can impoverish urban environments, but it’s difficult for community members to raise awareness of this problem because it’s not easily visible.


SignalSprout plants change color based on the amount of heavy metals in surrounding soils. They are engineered using bio-reporting technology and provided to individuals or classrooms through a low-cost planting kit.


Our solution is part educational campaign, part socially-driven data visualization project. SignalSprout raises awareness of damaging soil pollutants and empowers community members to lobby for change.

Watch the Video

SignalSprout is a conceptual project created for the 2021 Biodesign Challenge. Watch the video to learn more about the product, the context, and the science behind SignalSprout.

Read the Guidebook

The SignalSprout guidebook would be offered with purchase of the kit. It contains step-by-step instructions for planting the seeds, information about GMOs, and more.

About the Product

The Plant

There are three genes that collectively make up the RUBY biosensor, and result in the synthesis of red pigment. RUBY is inserted into the genome of each plant at a location where they will be highly expressed in response to arsenic, cadmium, and lead. This will result in the plants turning red when grown in soil containing their respective contaminant. In addition, all SignalSprout plants are grown from seeds that produce sterile plants, eliminating the possibility of unwanted spread.

Image credit: Figure 2 from “A reporter for noninvasively monitoring gene expression and plant transformation”

The Kit

SignalSprout comes in three different kits: backyard kit (for individuals), community kit (for larger-scale projects), and classroom kit (for educational settings). There are four SignalSprout plants available, which come in the form of seeds embedded in recycled paper. Each plant also comes with a sign for easy labelling, and the sign has a folded design so it can be used as a trowel. There is also a booklet that contains instructions and information about the kit—this is optional to be included in the kit, as it is also available in a digital format on the SignalSprout app.

The App & Website

The SignalSprout app provides a user-friendly interface for community members to submit their results. Once the SignalSprout plant has sprouted, the user takes a photo of the plant next to its designated sign and uploads it to the app. Our website analyzes the photo and aggregates the data using GIS technology. The result is a color-coded map that makes soil pollution visible to the public via the SignalSprout website.


We initially utilized published research like The Nature of Positive by Pamela Mang and Bill Reed and we also referred to documentaries, personal anecdotes, and simple Google searches. Through group discussions, we established a focus on community health and utilized local news sources such as the Star Tribune and MinnPost to learn about pressing issues such as The Arsenic Triangle. Finally, the aforementioned articles on RUBY and plant sterility lifted the boundaries on SignalSprout’s feasibility and gave way to our final product.

Feedback from Experts

Many of our ideas were made possible through the help of experts. Liz Dengate, who teaches science at the School for Environment Studies in Apple Valley, guided us through our proposed classroom kit and offered thoughts on its possible effectiveness. Emilie Snell-Rood is an associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences and she contributed greatly through a presentation on biomimicry early in our creative process. We also spoke with Lisa Philander, who is a curator for the College of Biological Sciences Conservatory, about the ins-and-outs of indoor greenspaces. On top of these virtual interviews, we communicated via email with multiple professors in the College of Biological Sciences about the scientific feasibility of our final product.

Meet the Team

Our team is made up of five undergraduate students from the Science Communication Lab at the University of Minnesota.

Alvina Salim

Alvina Salim

Design Intern

Reed Grumann

Reed Grumann

Writing Intern

Kyle Wong

Kyle Wong

Writing Intern

Rose Lam

Rose Lam

Graphic Design Intern

Charlie Kidder

Charlie Kidder

Writing Intern

Our Guiding Principles

There are four principles we are keeping in mind as we develop our project.

Our project will address UN Sustainable Development Goal #11.

UN Sustainable Development Goal #11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

Our project will take a socio-ecological approach.

During the design process, we will consider how our solution affects the wellbeing of both humans and ecosystems.

Our project will be a tangible design or product.

BDC projects aren’t required to have a tangible end product; some teams take a more social critique-focused approach. After some discussion, our team decided that we would rather create a solution that people could use for a defined purpose.

Our project could use biophilic or biomimetic design.

Biophilia is the concept that human instinct leads us to favor nature and the environment.

Biomimicry is a strategy for design thinking and problem solving that looks to biological features/processes for inspiration.

Getting Started

Today was the first meeting for the 2021 Biodesign Challenge. To get started, we watched the videos of the winning teams from last year. We discussed our thoughts on their projects and took notes on winning qualities they had in common. After learning about what the Biodesign Challenge entails, we discussed the meaning of concepts and terms relevant to our project topic. We broadly defined biodesign as ‘mimicking a biological process to synthesize a product.” We also connected the terms biomimicry (using a biological process as a model to produce materials) and biophilia (designing something with biology and nature in mind) to biodesign. These issues include social norms, environmental...

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Project Updates

Biodesign Challenge: Narrowing it down

Biodesign Challenge: Narrowing it down

For the past several weeks, we have explored many subjects within the realm of biodesign. Now, it’s time to narrow down our areas of interest into a central project. At today’s meeting, each of us...

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Want to learn more? Contact us here.

SCL is a part of the BioTechnology Institute in the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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