Researchers are breeding fluorescent bacteria to uncover landmines

Lasers and microorganisms might help us clean up the world's minefields.

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Essam Al Sudani / Reuters
Essam Al Sudani / Reuters

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?

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