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Photo: Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In Israel
, research with genetically modified bacteria is creating a new way to detect hidden land mines.

Giving credit where it’s due, I first learned at PRI’s The World that e coli is being used to detect forgotten land mines. You can listen to the radio broadcast here.

Then I went online and found a variety of articles on the research. This one is from the New York Times. Elizabeth Landau writes, “Land mines left over from bygone conflicts — or those still being fought — pose silent threats to millions of people around the world. With the help of bacteria that glow in their presence, these hidden hazards may one day be found and safely removed or destroyed.

“Researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have spent a decade developing living land mine sensors using E. coli bacteria. In recent studies, they describe their latest progress. By using genetic engineering, they can turn each bacterium into ‘a miniature firefly’ in the presence of a chemical associated with the explosives, said Shimshon Belkin, the Hebrew University microbiologist leading the research.

“In 2019, more than 5,500 people were killed or injured by land mines and explosive remnants of war, and 80 percent of them were civilians, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Anti-personnel land mines, which can be only a few inches across and easily concealed, are especially dangerous. Estimates vary for the worldwide count of buried land mines, but they are as high as 110 million.

“Many strategies have been tried to locate land mines, such as using metal detectors and training detection animals, including an award-winning rat that helped locate 71 land mines before it retired. Each method balances benefits with risks and costs.

“The idea of rewiring bacteria to sense land mines originated with Robert Burlage, then at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

In the mid-1990s, Dr. Burlage worked on getting bacteria to light up in response to organic waste and mercury. Looking for a new application for this technique, he got the idea to try targeting land mine chemicals.

“Although Dr. Burlage conducted a few small field tests, he was unable to secure more funding and moved on. ‘My tale of woe,’ said Dr. Burlage, now a professor at Concordia University Wisconsin. …

“Bacteria are cheap and expendable and can be spread over a lot of ground. And they are relatively quick at reporting back — within hours, or up to a day, they either glow or they don’t.

“In studies published in the past year in Current Research in Biotechnology and Microbial Biotechnology, Dr. Belkin and his team describe tinkering with two key components of the E. coli genetic code: pieces of DNA called ‘promoters’ that act as on/off switches for genes, and ‘reporters’ that prompt light-emitting reactions. To produce this effect, researchers borrowed genes from marine bacteria that naturally emit light in the ocean.

“Scientists attuned the bacteria to a chemical called [DNT]. DNT vapor seeps into soil surrounding a land mine, and the bacteria can sniff it out. …

“One key challenge the group is working to overcome is safely locating the bioluminescent bacteria in a real minefield. When they detect land mines, their glow is so faint that light from the moon, stars or nearby cities could drown it out. …

“Aharon J. Agranat, a bioengineer at Hebrew University, and other researchers reported in April in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics that they had developed a device that shields the bacteria and detects their glow. This sensor system can then report its findings to a nearby computer, but it hasn’t been tested outside a laboratory setting. The researchers have also recently conducted field tests in Israel, collaborating with the Israeli army to ensure the safety of the experiments, as well as an Israeli defense company. The results of these tests have not been published, but Dr. Belkin called them ‘generally very successful.’ ” More here.

I know a little about the scourge of land mines from reading Laos-based mysteries by artist, educator, and activist Colin Cotterill. If you like fiction about foreign countries that not only introduces you to new geographies but also addresses the challenges to be found there, you will probably love Dr. Siri of The Coroner’s Lunch.

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