Brussels, 11 Feb 2004
A bio-engineered plant that detects buried landmines by changing colour could save thousands of lives and limbs, Danish scientists claim. Field tests will establish its effectiveness at eradicating one of war's major scourges.
Despite landmine treaties and concerted efforts by EU and world policy-makers, tens of millions of unexploded landmines lie in wait to maim – killing up to 20 000 new victims every year. New hope springs from a rather unusual source: the biological world.
With genetic modifications to the thale cress plant, researchers at the labs of Denmark's Aresa Biodetection were able to take advantage of this fast-growing herb's sensitivity to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) gas, which is released by submerged landmines. The leaves change from green to a plum-coloured red after between three and five weeks growing in the presence of this gas.
Some questions still remain about how sensitive the plant is to NO2 – and, as the plant is quite shallow-rooted, it would only effectively detect mines closer to the surface – but the research team has high hopes that the technique will prove itself in field tests. If successful, it would make mine detection faster and safer, Carsten Meier of the University of Copenhagen (DA), who served as scientific adviser to Aresa, told reporters.
To get the leaves to change colour when exposed to NO2, the scientists manipulated the gene (anthocyanin) responsible for this colouration – every autumn – in the natural world. Aresa chose this particular plant because it is able to grow all over the world (except the poles), much was already known about its genetic make-up, and it could be engineered to be sterile in the wild, preventing uncontrolled spreading.
Next on the agenda for this biotech company is to develop simple, safe methods – such as 'spray guns' – for distributing and sowing thale cress in areas suspected of being mined. It is also working on biodetecting plants which respond to heavy metals and other environmental pollutants, such as nickel and cadmium, for soil remediation once the explosives have been cleared away.
Such initiatives complement the EU's – and Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin's – commitment to eradicating this blight. Over the past decade, the European Commission has spent more than €200 million on de-mining efforts, including around €33 million for new technologies.
"The EU has become a major donor in international research efforts in support of humanitarian mine clearance. Significant technological progress has been made… but more needs to be done to turn knowledge into new de-mining technologies," Mr Busquin told delegates at an international conference on the Detection, Removal and Neutralisation of Landmines held in Brussels last year.