BioBricked bacteria glow in the presence of landmines

Paul Raven @ 18-11-2009

landmine warning sign, CambodiaAn alarmingly large amount of the world’s surface is strewn with landmines left behind after conflicts of one sort or another, leaving the locals at risk of death and mutilation long after the dispute that caused them to be laid down has ended (or moved elsewhere).

Scouting for landmines is a risky job for humans (and, sadly, not everyone has a bomb dog like UXO)… but a student project at the University of Edinburgh may have found an easier and safer way of locating the mines so that they can be defused:

Bacteria which glow green in the presence of explosives could provide a cheap and safe way to find hidden landmines, Edinburgh scientists claim. The bugs can be mixed into a colourless solution, which forms green patches when sprayed onto ground where mines are buried. Edinburgh University said the microbes could be dropped by air onto danger areas. Within a few hours, they would indicate where the explosives can be found. The scientists produced the bacteria using a new technique called BioBricking, which manipulates packages of DNA.

Sounds like the perfect solution… although, as Inhabitat points out, we could do with being sure that the bacteria are thoroughly benign and unlikely to spread beyond the target area, lest we simply swap landmines for a form of unintended biological warfare. [via SlashDot; image by karl simourd]


Uxo, Bomb Rat

Paul Raven @ 31-03-2009

RatWe interrupt our usually po-faced seriousness for a brief dose of vaguely topical cute… assuming your definition of cute extends to rodents.

You may have read and enjoyed Eliot Fintushel’s “UXO, Bomb Dog” when we published it here last year (and if not, you should, because it’s a great story), but you may not have been aware that even smaller animals can be trained to de-mine battlefields – like rats.

Trainers begin socialising the young rats to the sights, sounds, and textures of the world by walking them on wet grass, going for a ride in a lorry and interacting with humans.

Then the sniffer rats are taught to recognise the smell of metal land mine casings in return for a food reward.

Thirty sniffer rats are already being used in Mozambique, Africa, and have proved incredibly successful for the detection and removal of land mines.

The rodents are fitted to a leash before scrambling their way over a piece of ground, sniffing out any explosives.

A trained rat can clear 100 metres square in 30 minutes, equivalent to two days work for a manual de-miner.

I used to share a house with a guy who kept rats, and I can vouch for their intelligence… and their tenacity. Their ability to come when they’re called? Not so much. [via grinding.be; image by charlycoste]


Inhumanity and the inhuman

Paul Raven @ 10-05-2007

Here’s a story that says something interesting about our ability to empathise with machines, and that shatters the myth of the heartless hard men of military brass: while watching a demonstration of an autonomous landmine-clearance robot which adapts to damage so it can continue its perilous journey, a US Army Colonel became distressed by seeing the plucky ‘bot still carrying on with only one remaining limb, and demanded that the demonstration stop, as it was ‘inhumane’. [PostHumanBlues]