Glowing bacteria could detect landmines and unexploded bombs

Israeli researchers have designed a system that uses a laser scanner to detect landmines using the glow of bacteria sensitive to a gas they secrete. Their system offers a new alternative to dated and dangerous de-mining techniques.

It is estimated that 110 million explosive devices remain buried in 70 countries. While areas of land known to contain mines are generally avoided, 15 to 20,000 people still die each year from accidents with landmines or unexploded bombs.

There is a humanitarian need to develop effective methods of detecting and destroying buried mines. While there are trained de-mining dogs and rats working today – and even trained military dolphins who work to locate underwater mines – most de-mining projects use technology that has barely progressed since the Second World War, such as metal detectors.

Once a mine has been detected, it can be disarmed, burned, or detonated under safe conditions.

In response to the need for reliable, safe and efficient technology, researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem began work on their new system for mapping the location of landmines remotely.

The system is based on the observation that all landmines leak tiny quantities of explosive vapours, which accumulate in the soil above them and mark their presence. The researchers engineered bacteria that emit a fluorescent signal when they come into contact with these distinctive vapours.

A laser-based scanner allows the minefield to be scanned remotely, and the location of the mines mapped safely.

During their trial for the system, the results of which are reported in Nature Biotechnology, the researchers encased the fluorescent bacteria in polymeric beads and scattered them across a field in which real landmines were buried.

This was the first demonstration of a functional standoff landmine detection system.

“Our field data show that engineered biosensor may be useful in a landmine detection system,” said Professor Shimson Belkin, from the Hebrew University’s institute of life sciences, who genetically engineered the bacterial sensors.

“For this to be possible, several challenges need to be overcome, such as enhancing the sensitivity and stability of the sensor bacteria, improving scanning speeds to cover large areas, and making the scanning apparatus more compact so it can be used on board a light unmanned aircraft or drone.”

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