Glowing bacteria offer hope for safe detection of 100m landmines

Team at Israel’s Hebrew University test system that uses lasers and modified bacteria to locate buried devices

A team of researchers at an Israeli university has successfully tested a technology using fluorescent bacteria and lasers that could become a safer system for detecting buried landmines.
Landmine detection and disposal in a heavily mined area near Kabul, Afghanistan.



An estimated 100m landmines are scattered in some 70 countries, a legacy of often long-past conflict, and the devices injure up to 20,000 people a year.

Mine clearance work is typically dangerous, labour-intensive and costly.

The team at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University has tested mine detection using bacteria genetically modified to give off a fluorescent signal when mines – often made out plastic – are close, which can then be detected with a laser.

Reporting the findings in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the researchers say their approach relies on tiny amounts of vapour given off by the explosives in the mines.

It was recognised that some plants reacted to those vapours, and the research used modified bacteria that essentially glow in contact with the explosive vapour. Encased in polymer beads scattered on the suspected minefield, that fluorescence is then detected by a laser system that researchers suggest could be mounted on a vehicle – including drones.

The system has been successfully tested in a field of real landmines, scanning the ground at a rate of around 18cm per second – a speed the researchers hope to increase.

Belkin’s team is not the first to develop bacteria that glow in the presence of explosive vapour – similar findings were reported by a team at Edinburgh University in 2009 – but it appears to be the first to have developed a potentially functioning detection system using the technology.

“Our field data show that engineered biosensors may be useful in a landmine detection system,” said Prof Shimshon Belkin, who headed the experiment. However, the technology would need to be developed further still, he added.

“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.”
The university said in a statement: “This appears to be the first demonstration of a functional standoff landmine detection system.”

A byproduct of the research by Belkin and his team was announced three years ago: the use of modified bacteria to detect pollutants in water, suggesting further applications for the technology.


Guardian

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