One of the many tragedies of war are the dangers that persist long after conflicts formally end — dangers like abandoned minefields peppered with active, deadly ordnance. Buried landmines threaten the lives of ordinary people near former battlefields all over the world, and disarming them has always been a dangerous effort. Now, researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem are working on a way to make landmine identification easier and safer. No, the trick isn’t to build a better metal detector, it’s to cultivate bacteria that glows in the presence of deadly explosives.
A paper by researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem describes a system that uses specifically engineered bacteria that respond with a fluorescent signal when it detects the kind of explosive vapors that seep out of old landmines. This signal can be picked up by a laser scanning system that can identify the location of buried mines. Because the laser scanning portion can be operated remotely, the system could potentially remove the human element from a large part of the detection process.
If this method of detection can be proven to work consistently and be successfully deployed, it could help create a safer and more accurate method for clearing old minefields. The project also just sounds kind of cool — what’s better than using genetically engineered microorganisms and lasers to save lives?