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Biotech Earth The Military News

Engineered Bacteria Glows To Reveal Land Mines 248

Posted by kdawson
from the lamp-unto-your-feet dept.
MikeChino writes "Sifting through minefields to remove hidden threats is a dangerous, tedious, and expensive process. Scientists at the University of Edinburgh recently announced that they have engineered a strain of bacteria that glows green in the presence of explosives, making mine detection a snap. The new strain of bacteria can be sprayed onto local affected areas or air-dropped over entire fields of mines. Within a few hours the bacteria strain begins to glow wherever traces of explosive chemicals are present."
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Engineered Bacteria Glows To Reveal Land Mines

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  • Pitch (Score:5, Informative)

    by ExE122 (954104) * on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @03:15PM (#30132830) Homepage Journal

    ...making mine detection a snap

    I dunno, sounds like a sales pitch to me... you should have either written it in all caps Billy Mays style or said, "Made in Scotland... you know the Scottish make good stuff"

    Reguardless, the article has already been /.ed so here are some other sources: Discover [discovermagazine.com], Treehugger [discovermagazine.com], and DNA [dnaindia.com]

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Ziwcam (766621)
      Simple countermeasure: After placing mines, spray field with explosive residue. Now what?
      • Re:Pitch (Score:5, Insightful)

        by MyLongNickName (822545) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @03:22PM (#30132950) Journal

        This would likely be used for already existing minefields. Afghanistan is the most mined country in the world, and cleanup efforts are very tedious. I think that is the market for this product.

      • Re:Pitch (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Maximum Prophet (716608) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @03:49PM (#30133450)
        Or, after one or more mines explode, does the entire field become tainted with explosive residue?
        • by gandhi_2 (1108023)

          Yes! That's the beauty of it! Now you know you have a minefield! (:

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by somersault (912633)

          As long as it doesn't result in any false negatives, I think it sounds like a great product for speeding up sweeping. Even if half of a 'field does end up alight, at least they can ignore the dark portions and concentrate on the lit areas.

          In a sparsely mined area it could save weeks, months or years of painstaking work - or a few limbs in the case where currently nobody is bothering to sweep the area clean at all.

          The next step is for the bacteria to auto dissolve the explosives, kind of like that blue stuff

      • by ppanon (16583)

        Well, it depends on how sensitive the bacteria are. Over time, rain, sun, organic processes, etc., will probably wash away and break down the explosive residue you spread, whereas it would continue to evaporate/disseminate from the actual mine locations. That would mean that long term mine fields like those on the North Korea DMZ would effectively be vulnerable unless you were prepared to re-seed the fields regularly with explosive residue (an expensive proposition). In the end, this might remove the last h

      • Re:Pitch (Score:5, Informative)

        by reverseengineer (580922) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @10:53PM (#30138890)
        In most soils, there live denitrifying bacteria, whose metabolism is based on reducing oxidized forms of nitrogen, eventually turning it back into nitrogen gas which reenters the atmosphere. These bacteria are recyclers, generally getting on by "unfixing" the fixed forms of nitrogen most other organisms rely on to survive, and so tend not to be picky about their nitrogen sources. They have enzymes called flavoprotein reductases that let them get nitrogen from organic nitrates, like from decaying organic matter. It turns out, however, that these enzymes also let them use many of our most common nitrated chemical explosives as a nitrogen source as well. In fact, one such enzyme has even been named PETN reductase, like the PETN that's in Semtex. I'm saying that if you spray liquid explosive on soil, the bacteria that already live there will eat it like candy. The mines would far outlast the spraying, which is exactly the problem- landmines around the world have far outlasted the conflicts they were laid for in the first place.

        The method proposed by this group from Edinburgh actually takes advantage of that process, though. An old landmine or unexploded ordnance is probably going to be slowly leaching explosive out of the weapon. This means that soil near the device will contain the explosive itself, and also nitrites, which are produced as an intermediate step of breaking down the explosive material.

        The group set up a sort of two-factor authorization. They genetically engineered promoters, proteins that bind to DNA and promote transcription of a particular genetic sequence, for two fluorescent proteins. Nitrite ion binds to the promoter for luxAB.GFP, which is a fusion protein of bacterial luciferase and green fluorescent protein. Thus, whenever nitrites are present, this protein gets made, and the bacterium glows a pleasing blue-green color. Not just fluoresces, mind you, but actively puts out light, due to the luciferase part. There is another sequence, for enhanced yellow fluorescent protein (eyfp). That promoter is activated by the presence of trinitrotoluene; the group used computational methods to develop a protein that binds DNA if it is also bound to TNT. Unlike the luxAB.GFP fusion protein, eyfp only fluoresces. It will glow yellow only if higher energy light has been input. So if pure TNT were present, the bacterium would make eyfp, but would only glow under UV light. When only nitrites are present, it actively glows blue. When both are present, the luxAB.GFP dumps light on eyfp, and the bacteria actively glow yellow. And then you call the bomb squad.
    • Re:Pitch (Score:5, Informative)

      by OverlordQ (264228) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @03:18PM (#30132898) Journal

      Your first two links are the same, might have been meant to direct here [treehugger.com] instead.

    • by nametaken (610866)

      I'd like to introduce you to a truly enlightening product!

    • Re:Pitch (Score:5, Funny)

      by Chapter80 (926879) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @04:03PM (#30133680)

      Do they have a bacteria that can help me with FreeCell? I was already pretty good at Minesweeper.

    • Re:Pitch (Score:5, Informative)

      by reverseengineer (580922) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @04:04PM (#30133698)
      It looks like the University of Edinburgh entered this project in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, so they have a project page [igem.org] with a lot of information. From what I gather, it would appear that the system is based on a system of enzymes that break down soil nitrites which have been linked to Green Fluorescent Protein. Nitrites are a natural byproduct of the breakdown of nitro-based explosives like TNT and PETN. Of course, soil nitrites from non-leaking landmine sources, like chemical fertilizers would also trigger fluorescence, so the team engineered a non-natural gene promoter protein. The genes to produce the fluorescent complex only get transcribed and translated into protein if the promoter is active. The activator for that promoter is a molecule of TNT, so the bacteria will only glow if TNT is present.

      I'd also encourage people to take a look at the other iGEM projects [igem.org]. Lots of interesting reading.
  • Now they'll either lace the entire field with C4, or they'll start using remote detonators when people move in to disarm.

    • by SuperKendall (25149) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @03:31PM (#30133150)

      Now they'll either lace the entire field with C4, or they'll start using remote detonators when people move in to disarm.

      The largest problem with land mines is that there are so many in areas where there is no longer any kind of combat - kids or other civilians go in the fields and lose life and limb. This helps with that. We're talking WW2 era stuff here.

      Modern warfare by insurgents is ALREADY past mines, since they don't have an endless amount of money to spend - they already place explosives and use remote detonators when troops come by.

      • by dontmakemethink (1186169) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @04:22PM (#30134050)

        I wouldn't say that they're "past" mines, if anything they lack the resources and facilities to make a proper mine, instead what they make are called Improvised Explosive Devices (IED's) which can perform the job of a mine, but can't withstand the elements for decades like a properly encased munition mine can. Sure, many are triggered manually, but a pressure plate trigger can be made from the ringer out of a typical telephone - a piezo transducer, same thing used to measure earthquakes. Wire that through a relay to a diesel-nitrogen cocktail, and it'll take the treads off a tank no problem, but it couldn't last more than maybe 5 years before the batteries die.

        Take a look at the tanks and APV junkyards in Afghanistan and try telling the repair crews there aren't any mines out there. And there are definitely booby traps in buildings where the bacteria could come in handy for sure.

      • by coolsnowmen (695297) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @06:31PM (#30136244)

        Modern warfare by insurgents is ALREADY past mines, since they don't have an endless amount of money to spend - they already place explosives and use remote detonators when troops come by.

        What you've said is not true. I said this to someone else, and at the risk of being modded redundant- BOTH triggers are used in Afghanistan against US troops. Remote detonation falls to the age-old electronic counter measure and it's best defense is a higher power jamer. This is compounded by the fact that the cheapest way to remote detonate is with cellphones, which only operate over a limited & known range of frequencies. Because of this flaw other types of triggers (force/pressure based) are still used (and because for pressure based explosions no enemy has to be physically present ['set it and forget it']).
        (I work in land mine detection)

    • by NeutronCowboy (896098) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @03:40PM (#30133320)

      The biggest danger with mines is not that they explode - it's that no one really knows where the mines are, and that they are often right around civilian areas.

      Your two scenarios would actually both be a vast improvement over the current situation.

      In the first instance, you just have to get one little corner to detonate, and the entire field should go off. At that point, de-mining via artillery-shelling will actually work. If you meant to say that the mine fields are going to be much denser, great as well - you can actually employ large-scale de-mining equipment and have it be more cost-efficient than the hand-demining.

      In the second instance, people sitting at a remote trigger actually make the mine safer: it means that there are less mines to go around (detonators are scarce, mines are not), someone knows where the mine is and it won't randomly go off when a kid decides to play catch in the field.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by DesertBlade (741219)
        A properly laid mine field will not suffer from sympathetic detonation of another mine. Most mines are placed 5 meters apart or more. Artillery is effective against certain types of mines, ones with trip wires or tilt rods, even then I would hesitate going in unless under a more serious threat (ie direct fire).

        A single mine with a remote detonator is barely effective. The whole point of a mine is place it, and forget it. If you need someone (or 2) to babysit it cuts into you combat effectiveness.

        Many
      • by Hognoxious (631665) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @06:44PM (#30136440) Homepage Journal

        In the first instance, you just have to get one little corner to detonate, and the entire field should go off.

        Any other genius thoughts you'd like to share with us? Like how it's easy to sink a battleship, all you have to do is make a hole the right size in the right place.

        Seriously, do you think military engineers haven't worked out how to set mines so that 300 mines cause more than one casualty? If one man set off an entire minefield it would hardly be worth getting your spade dirty planting them, would it? You'd do more harm to the enemy throwing the bastard things at them.

        You're not an armchair general. You aren't even a moron. You're an armchair moron.

    • by vlm (69642)

      Now they'll either lace the entire field with C4, or they'll start using remote detonators when people move in to disarm.

      The real problem is there is no magic biological way to detect explosives, like the force, or some DnD "reveal invisible" spell.

      So, what'll happen, is anywhere the mines have degraded and cracked open and are thus probably inert, will glow green, so people will avoid those "dangerous" areas, and anywhere the mines remain hermetically sealed, will not glow, thus it looks "safe" but is actually very dangerous.

      Even worse, its not failsafe. If a spot is not glowing, is that because coverage was not 100% becaus

      • So, what'll happen, is anywhere the mines have degraded and cracked open and are thus probably inert, will glow green, so people will avoid those "dangerous" areas, and anywhere the mines remain hermetically sealed, will not glow, thus it looks "safe" but is actually very dangerous.

        If machine scanners can detect explosives what makes you think living things can't? Are these scanners just scams to get money from airports, border crossings, and seaports?

        Even worse, its not failsafe. If a spot is not glowing,

  • by icebike (68054) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @03:18PM (#30132904)

    It would seem if you could get this strain to survive in the soil for some months you could spray road sides even ahead of the implanting of IEDs.

  • Nice idea, but... (Score:5, Informative)

    by TrentTheThief (118302) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @03:19PM (#30132922)

    Exploded mines and artillery shells leave unburnt residue.

    • This could be a setback, but my guess is that there would be a "glowing bacterial density" that you could look at. If everything's faintly glowing green in an area, then there's a spot where it's bright green, you'd take special care around that spot.

      I'm not 100% sure how it would work, but this could save lives.

      • I wonder if it works in the dark? It might be confusing when using night vision.

      • by vlm (69642)

        If everything's faintly glowing green in an area, then there's a spot where it's bright green, you'd take special care around that spot.

        Still no go. That bright spot is either uneven application of the mystery bacteria, or its a piece of shrapnel from the artillery shell/grenade/whatever.

  • by Itninja (937614) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @03:20PM (#30132936) Homepage
    So can I add this the list of possible humanity-ending catalysts and/or future Michael Crichton novel plotlines? I vote to call it "glow goo" or perhaps simply "bactoswarm".
    • You would have to hop into his time travel machine to get him to write it however, as he passed away in November of 2008.
    • I vote to call it "really dirty bomb."

      "Not only did I get hit with mine shrapnel, it was covered in gross glowing e.coli. I nearly crapped myself from the mine explosion. Later, I -did- crap myself because of the diarrhea it caused."

    • by mmontour (2208)

      So can I add this the list of possible humanity-ending catalysts and/or future Michael Crichton novel plotlines?

      The one I'm waiting for is a genetically-engineered cellulose-to-ethanol bacterium that can survive in the wild. With all of the biofuel companies rushing to come up with a commercially-viable product, there's lots of opportunity for an accident to unleash a critter capable of eating all plant life on earth. It will doom humanity, but at least we'll have lots of cheap booze to drink as the planet withers and dies.

  • The bacteria is a strain of bubonic plague that's more deadly than the mines themselves...

  • Oh great ! (Score:5, Funny)

    by bugs2squash (1132591) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @03:28PM (#30133092)
    Now we'll all have to be dunked in a vat of this stuff every time I go through TSA security. We get more like sheep every day.
  • starting in 3... 2.... 1....

  • Great! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Cornwallis (1188489) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @03:31PM (#30133152)

    Yet *another* source of light pollution.

  • by Draque (1367509) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @03:40PM (#30133322)
    Am I the only one here who is aware of how bad of a problem land mines are to civilians in many third world countries? The response here seems generally negative, but if this technology helps to diffuse old land mine fields, it would be wonderful. Just because it was planted in WW2 doesn't guarantee that it's become inactive or that it won't kill you now.
    • by KlaymenDK (713149) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @03:55PM (#30133540) Journal

      No, you're right -- it is a very good idea.

      The problem is, all these critics are a teeny bit right when they say it's not going to work. Alas.

      Not so very many years ago, there was an initiative to grow flowers whose petals turn red if they hit a mine. A lot more practical than bacteria, and it seemed to work very well, too -- but they got booted out of that African country they were testing in rather rough-handedly. It's a sad tale, but the fact is there are more warmongers than do-gooders and these things are immensely difficult to see to fruition.

      I do wish them luck, though.

    • Well noted - it's a lot of the old mines that people have forgotten about that continue to cause problems. I've visited Cambodia and there are a lot there because of the Khmer Rouger period there, and in Laos and Vietnam there are a lot due to the "Vietnam War" as we think of it in the West from over 40 years ago. Lots of other conflicts in Africa and other places as well. Not so bad if you're in a rich country or you've got resources that people want access to (e.g. oil) but a lot of places have just been

  • Seems like this could massively reduce the military usefulness of minefields. Isn't a huge minefield sitting on the border between North and South Korea helping keep the peace there, by deterring North Korean military aggression? What if the North Koreans can spot all the mines?

    --PM

    • by Chris Burke (6130)

      It's not like it was impossible to detect and disarm mines before this. It was just more time consuming and expensive. Mines are just one aspect of the Demilitarized Zone, and would be basically useless by themselves. There are troops from both countries patrolling their side of it in case anyone tries to cross over, and massive amounts of guns and artillery. Nevertheless, the North has gone on incursions in to the South's side of the DMZ. And the biggest threat from NK has been the tunnels they dug al

    • by Nyeerrmm (940927)

      Not really. The DMZ (as far as I know) is the only place where a minefield still actually serves a military purpose. Furthermore, without an ability to disarm the mines remotely, it wouldn't be that advantageous to know where they are, since the North Korean forces would be maneuvering to avoid the mines and would be much more vulnerable to counterattack. The US and the South would know they were coming from troop buildups and the spraying of the field with bacteria (it takes a few hours to activate). A

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by lgftsa (617184)

      I suspect that if that particular area was crop-dusted with the bacteria, the result would resemble a raggedly cut electroluminescent strip and be visible from space.

  • by dlaudel (1304717) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @03:56PM (#30133554)
    I hope that as the bacteria glows, it arranges itself into numbers indicating how many mines are nearby. It should making identifying the mined locations a simple matter of elimination.
  • by roguetrick (1147853) <kazer@brIIIigands.org minus threevowels> on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @03:58PM (#30133586) Homepage Journal

    Detecting mines is great, I'd be pretty damn worried about the ones that arn't detected however.

    • by d474 (695126) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @05:19PM (#30135080)
      Exactly. They have the logic backwards. What if an area didn't get covered in spraying? So that area would be "dark" and they think it's safe? Yikes, that's a false negative. They need to reverse it to avoid that false negative.

      If the bacteria only glow WITHOUT the presence of landmine. That way, at best you get false positives which is less dangerous than a false negative, in this situation.
  • I was making something similar, but they glowed when orcs were nearby.
  • Why do I get the feeling, when slashdoters discuss military tactics and strategies, that we're inside some kind of "Enders Game" scenario, and some pentagon general, recently reassigned from SG-1, is high-fiving cmdr taco right now, over our great insights into warfare?

  • This terrible scourge of mimes is finally over!

    Oh fudge, I misread the article.

  • Just FYI to all the people in this thread misusing the term. Fluorescence require an external source of radiation to glow, but only during that exposure. Think UV light and neon paint.
  • A friend worked overseas in ordnance disposal. It is, by most accounts, one of the most dangerous job out there. He left, but I'll be quite content if I know more soldiers and peacekeepers in the future will be kept safer.

    Even if this thing had a 100% success rate, I'd still be cautious about clearing the minefield. But this can at least help where you know with some certainty there are mines in the area, and you will have some certainty there is a mine in that location or within the vicinity.

    This does not

  • They must have been testing this around my place, my back yard is glowing blue.

  • Is this the glowing green goo that created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

  • I hope this cheap and easy way to display where land mines are hidden is enough to stop people from using landmines altogether.

  • A benign bacteria like this, sprayed over a crowd, might reveal suicide bombers if it reacts quickly enough.

  • Great. (Score:3, Funny)

    by SharpFang (651121) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @05:31PM (#30135304) Homepage Journal

    Now antiseptics will get on a list of controlled substances used to hide location of mines.

  • I assume they probably engineered the bacteria so it doesn't survive indefinitely, but it would be interesting if it mutated and began spreading and eventually spread to every corner of the world, so any place that had explosives would glow!

  • So, how will this work in a desert area like Afghanistan or Iraq?

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