This is completely brilliant:

Danish researchers said they have produced a plant that can help detect hidden landmines by changing its colour from green to red when its roots come in contact with explosives.

The genetically-modified plant changes its colour from green to red within three to five weeks of growth when its roots come in contact with NO2, a chemical group present in explosives.

Yet another example of the positive use of genetically modified plants. These particular plants cannot spread without human help, thus controlling where they grow so they won’t take over the local ecology.

For several years I’ve been intrigued by revolutionary methods for detecting landmines and buried explosives, because this is such a tough problem from an engineering perspective. The world is littered with landmines left over from forgotten wars, and also in places where hostilities are still active but serve mainly to threaten the lives of innocent civilian populations in rural areas.

Trained dogs are one method, although it is labor intensive to train the animals and they require a skilled handler. There’s the brute force method employed by a mine clearing machine (basically a bulldozer that triggers landmines and safely contains the explosion inside a shielded shell).

More elegant is the portable metal-detector-like device made by Quantum Magnetics, which works using quadrupole resonance technology (it gently disturbs the molecules in explosives with a radio wave and detects the disturbance). It has the significant advantage of being a device that one person can transport and operate over rough terrain, and can be reliably used by someone with minimal training, such as soldiers or civilians.

But something like plants that change color is innovative for many reasons. It’s environmentally non-disruptive, can operate passively for long periods of time (eliminating the need for active scans or patrols), and the signal is pretty much idiot proof even to local residents; the plant turns red.

So tell me again how genetically modified plants are evil?

14 Responses to “Plants That Detect Landmines”
  1. Xavier says:

    That doesn’t sound very practical. If you want to clear a large suspected minefield you’d have plant a lot of these trees and wait for them to grow. I don’t see how this could be more cost effective than current methods.

  2. Anne Haight says:

    The article suggests that the plants begin to show useful color signals within about 3 weeks of planting. They’re not trees.

  3. Anonymous says:

    “So tell me again how genetically modified plants are evil?”

    Are you serious? Have you ever heard of Monsanto?

    Not all genetic modifications are bad, I’ll agree with that but some are. We’re getting pototoes now that are infused with insecticide because of GM and there is no way to tell what exaclty you’re eating anymore. It’s entirely possible that a cacinogenic substance may be INTENTIONALLY ADDED to a food, that over a period of 20 years leads to serious problems – in which case, many people will be screwed.

    But not all of it is bad. I’m kind of looking foward to the day they actually make a plant that grows animal proteins.

  4. Anne Haight says:

    Are you serious? Have you ever heard of Monsanto?

    Yes, I’ve heard of Monsanto. It’s one of the largest agricultural providers, specializing these days in biotechnology, plant genomics, and cross-breeding. They are the source of many leading seed brands used in crops. They also make Roundup, that stuff in the spray bottle that I use to kill weeds in my yard.

    Not all genetic modifications are bad, I’ll agree with that but some are. We’re getting pototoes now that are infused with insecticide because of GM and there is no way to tell what exaclty you’re eating anymore.

    “Infused with insecticide” implies a situation that is quite different from the truth. Let’s look at one concrete example:

    One of the most destructive pests in potato production is the Colorado Potato Beetle (CPB). Among other things, they spread the potato leaf roll virus, which significantly reduces the plant’s yield. The CPB is the most destructive defoliating potato pest in the Northwest United States.

    In the 1980’s, a potato variety was genetically altered to express the Cry3A protein. It is an endotoxin, which the beetle ingests while feeding on the plant. The Cry3A is activated by enzymes in the beetle’s digestive tract, binds to the membrane in the beetle’s gut, and the beetle dies of internal cell rupture.

    Cry3A is found in nature. The difference with this biotech application is that the potato plant produces the Cry3A throughout the whole plant and through the entire growing season in sufficient quantity to control the pest. It kills 99% of the CPB population within 15 days of initial exposure.

    Now, while you could describe this process as “infused with insecticide”, I think you would agree that the reality is considerably less dangerous to humans than the term implies. I’m sure your original intent was to create a mental image of people eating mouthfuls of diazinon, and that’s just not what is happening here.

    Monsanto also produces, among others, Roundup Ready® soybeans that are resistant to Roundup, allowing a farmer to spray the weed-killer over the whole crop without fear of harm to the soybeans. This is much more efficient than attempting targeted weed-killer application.

    They make some corn hybrids (Yieldgard®) that are naturally resistant to the European and Southwestern corn borer. The corn borer is one of the top pests in the corn industry, responsible for enormous monetary loss and wasted planting every year.

    Monsanto is currently in the final stages of studies on another Yieldgard® corn hybrid that resists the rootworm, a pest that infests the roots of the plant and destroys it before even being noticed. Like the corn borer, the rootworm is a major agricultural bane that accounts for huge waste and loss of income.

    It’s entirely possible that a cacinogenic substance may be INTENTIONALLY ADDED to a food, that over a period of 20 years leads to serious problems – in which case, many people will be screwed.

    See above for an explanation of why this is a misleading and unnecessarily hysterical accusation.

    Also, I would point out that “carcinogenic substance” is an extremely broad term that applies to a large number of naturally occurring chemicals. Even food that has never been touched by a commercial pesticide or herbicide contains measurable levels of so-called carcinogens.

    You do understand that the laboratory standard for a carcinogen is completely silly? They force-feed the substance in question to lab mice or rats in quanities equivalent to many times their own weight per day. My mother used to work with lab mice in chemical and radiation experiments. She said that while it is true that you can induce cancer in lab mice by stuffing them with 500x their body weight daily in saccharin, that isn’t a particularly legitimate way of concluding that a packet of Sweet’N’Low in your coffee will kill you. Her belief after many years of working with it, is that cancer is caused primarily by extreme systemic stress, and not any specific substance.

    But not all of it is bad. I’m kind of looking foward to the day they actually make a plant that grows animal proteins.

    Because it would annoy the crap out of vegans? ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. fuzzywzhe says:

    Yes, I’ve heard of Monsanto. It’s one of the largest agricultural providers, specializing these days in biotechnology, plant genomics, and cross-breeding. They are the source of many leading seed brands used in crops. They also make Roundup, that stuff in the spray bottle that I use to kill weeds in my yard.

    They are also the ones that pushed BSE into the market and lobbied the government (successfully) to prevent Dairy produces from labelling the milk BGH free, even though BGH causes a marked increase in somatic cell count in the milk, also known as “pus”. It’s also absorbed into your system. Berkshire Farms defies the court order not to label their milk BGH free.

    Monsanto also is responsible for getting Nutrasweet onto the market, even though it turns out that Nutrasweet is known to cause some people memory loss and to affect their blood chemistry. Saccharin is much safer.

    Oh, and they’ve made a VERY USEFUL SEED that once grown, will not produce new seed, forcing farmers in 3rd world nations to become dependant on Monsanto, if they are foolish enough to do it once.

    These are just a few of the attrocities they do. They are a fucking evil company. They’d happily kill you for a 30 cent profit.

    With regard to Cry3A, aren’t you a little concerned that it’s classifed a toxin? I’ve read material data safety sheets and stuff, and know what an LD 50 and so on, but I’d like to know what I’m eating.

    And it’s real neat the Cry3A is found in nature, so is arsenic, and it’s natural too. It must be therefor good for you.

    I’m not a crunchie granola all natural nut. I think that organic farming is stupid. If we all went organic, 4 billion people would starve.

    Monsanto is as bad as I think it is. I saw what they did with BSE. Fucking facists.

    See above for an explanation of why this is a misleading and unnecessarily hysterical accusation.

    Dude, we live in a world where Nestle was going to 3rd world countries, and giving women soy milk to feed their babies for FREE. Once they stopped lactating though, the milk cost money.

    Also, I would point out that “carcinogenic substance” is an extremely broad term that applies to a large number of naturally occurring chemicals. Even food that has never been touched by a commercial pesticide or herbicide contains measurable levels of so-called carcinogens.

    You mean natural carcinogens exist???? Well, that is news to me!!! Is U235 natural? I thought it was entirely artificial like Plutonium!

    What, do you think I’m stupid?

    You do understand that the laboratory standard for a carcinogen is completely silly? They force-feed the substance in question to lab mice or rats in quanities equivalent to many times their own weight per day.

    Yes, and I know that according to that test, cigarette smoke isn’t a carcinogen. Rats don’t lung cancer from nicotene.

    Animal models are still the best we have. Until you come up with something else, it’s what we have to use. Maybe we can start testing on poor countries like Iraq or Palestine?

    Engh, I don’t want to argue this point. Monsanto is not worthy of your support, damned few companies are.

  6. Low-Tech Redneck says:

    “Engh, I don’t want to argue this point. Monsanto is not worthy of your support, damned few companies are.”

    I think we’ve got the root of this posters angst right here. If it was created by a large corporation, it’s evil. Strange, you’d think environmental-leaning people would embrace a plant that would naturaly resist pests instead of having to use the “nasty” chemical pesticides. But no, they’re bound and determined that geneticaly engineered crops are evil, pesticides are evil, agribuisness corporations are evil, and damn anyone who says otherwise.

  7. Anne Haight says:

    They are also the ones that pushed BSE into the market

    I assume you’re talking about Mad Cow disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) here, and the beef industry’s practice of user “downer” cows (animals that are injured or visibly ill) to make livestock feed. This process increases the likelihood of spreading BSE if downer cows are infected.

    This is, of course, a stupid practice that I am glad to see outlawed. But I don’t see what Monsanto has to do with it. Can you explain?

    and lobbied the government (successfully) to prevent Dairy produces from labelling the milk BGH free, even though BGH causes a marked increase in somatic cell count in the milk, also known as “pus”. It’s also absorbed into your system. Berkshire Farms defies the court order not to label their milk BGH free.

    rBGH – Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, otherwise known as BST (bovine somatotropin). It’s a genetically engineered hormone that increases milk production in cows. Monsanto created it.

    The FDA approved it in 1993, and it currently is used in about 15% of US dairy herds. Monsanto sued a milk producer in Maine that began labeling its milk as “rBST-free”, claiming that such a label implies that rBST is dangerous, and there is no evidence to suggest this is the case. As such, the “rBST-free” label may constitute a form of libel against Monsanto.

    I think that the lawsuit is still going on, since it was filed in July, 2003, but I’m not certain. Any additional information anyone can provide would be welcome.

    There is some evidence that rBST has negative health effects on the cows it is given to, and I would generally agree that sick cows are not going to be good sources of food. I think people have a right to know what is in their food, and personally I would like to see the outcome of that lawsuit be in favor of the Maine milk producer.

    Monsanto also is responsible for getting Nutrasweet onto the market, even though it turns out that Nutrasweet is known to cause some people memory loss and to affect their blood chemistry. Saccharin is much safer.

    As a matter of fact, aspartame is indeed showing signs of being dangerous in high doses. A relative of mine used to drink a lot of iced with Nutrasweet in it (something like 8 glasses a day – she worked on a ranch), and ultimately suffered some nerve damage and loss of sensation in parts of her extremities. She recovered, eventually, once she stopped eating aspartame. Her doctor indicated that aspartame has been linked to other cases like this.

    Of course, taking too much vitamin supplements can also kill you. Iron and niacin are particular toxic in large doses. But I don’t think anyone would argue that iron and niacin should be eliminated from our diets.

    Oh, and they’ve made a VERY USEFUL SEED that once grown, will not produce new seed, forcing farmers in 3rd world nations to become dependant on Monsanto, if they are foolish enough to do it once.

    Crops that cannot reproduce without human assistance are nothing new. Seedless watermelon is a good example. There are some legitimate reasons for doing this, one of which is to prevent uncontrolled spread of engineered crops. There are many people who are concerned about the possibility of biotech crops cross-breeding with other plants by accident, and it is prudent to control this possibility until we have longer term data on biotech crops.

    Also, this kind of “termination” is commonly used to protect a company’s patent on an engineered crop (and this is probably Monsanto’s primary reason for it). I see nothing wrong with this. Monsanto invented it, and has the right to control its use. If it passes into the general domain where anyone can breed and spread it without paying Monsanto, that’s a major loss of rightful revenue to the product’s creator.

    A lot of people, however, seem to believe it’s ok to steal from companies like Monsanto that make these miraculous products, while simultaneously criticizing them for existing at all.

    These are just a few of the attrocities they do. They are a fucking evil company. They’d happily kill you for a 30 cent profit.

    I see no evidence of atrocity in the examples you cited. But I do agree that Monsanto may be engaged in some questionable business practices concerning the consumer’s right to an informed choice about what to eat.

    With regard to Cry3A, aren’t you a little concerned that it’s classifed a toxin?

    Not particularly. The word “toxin” is a very general term that applies to a lot of things. The toxin in question is a bacterial endotoxin, derived from Bacillus thuringiensis, aka “Bt” (this is what the Bt in reference to pest resistant crops means, not “biotech”).

    Cry3A happens to be specifically toxic to coleopterous pests, including the Colorado Potato Beetle. It is actually a protoxin – inactive until exposed to the specific conditions that are common in the gut of the beetle. If you’re interested in the specifics of how Bt behaves, I recommend reading here. The word “toxin” also has a specific meaning in biology:

    Noun 1.bacterial toxin – any endotoxin or exotoxin formed in or elaborated by bacterial cells.

    toxin – a poisonous substance produced during the metabolism and growth of certain microorganisms and some higher plant and animal species.

    I’ve read material data safety sheets and stuff, and know what an LD 50 and so on, but I’d like to know what I’m eating.

    For the reader’s edifiction:

    An LD50 value is the amount of a solid or liquid material that it takes to kill 50% of test animals (for example, mice or rats) in one dose.

    And it’s real neat the Cry3A is found in nature, so is arsenic, and it’s natural too. It must be therefor good for you.

    I did not say that, nor is that even necessarily implied. My point is merely that Cry3A was not created in a laboratory, and thus probably poses little threat to the ecosystem at large.

    I’m not a crunchie granola all natural nut. I think that organic farming is stupid. If we all went organic, 4 billion people would starve.

    I agree. Engineered crops are vital to feeding the world efficiently. In many cases, they actually improve on the natural traits of the food. There is a variety of rice, called Golden Rice, that is engineering to contain Vitamin A. This crop is used to feed many people in third world nations, where the lack of sufficient Vitamin A in the diet blinds countless people annually. This is just one example of the benefits of genetically engineered crops.

    This is really just an extension of the engineering we have been doing with crops for thousands of years, which is commonly called “cross-breeding” and the creation of “hybrids”. The essential difference is that we are going directly to the genes to get the desired results, without the waste of trial and error cross-breeding and the inclusion of unwanted traits.

    Dude, we live in a world where Nestle was going to 3rd world countries, and giving women soy milk to feed their babies for FREE. Once they stopped lactating though, the milk cost money.

    That’s completely irrelevant to what I was saying.

    You mean natural carcinogens exist???? Well, that is news to me!!! Is U235 natural? I thought it was entirely artificial like Plutonium!
    What, do you think I’m stupid?

    Well, considering that plutonium does occur naturally…

    But no, I wasn’t suggesting that. I just think some people get a little overwrought when words like “carcinogen” come up, and stop thinking with their brains.

    Yes, and I know that according to that test, cigarette smoke isn’t a carcinogen. Rats don’t lung cancer from nicotene.

    There are a lot of ingredients in cigarettes besides nicotine, most of them not things I would care to inhale. Hence, I don’t smoke. ๐Ÿ™‚ Nicotine, incidentally, is a chemical that the tobacco plants makes to kill pests, and it has medicinal use as a treatment for internal parasitic infections in humans.

    Animal models are still the best we have. Until you come up with something else, it’s what we have to use. Maybe we can start testing on poor countries like Iraq or Palestine?

    Lab mice are good models for the human immune system, because theirs is nearly identical to a human’s. Aside from that, I’m not sure why you injected this comment. I wasn’t suggesting that animal experimentation was a bad idea, merely that some of the methods may be flawed.

  8. Anonymous says:

    BGH, not BSE. I know it’s a serious mistake, it’s a byproduct of being up for 14 hours working.

    If you guys want to think Montsanto is a good corporation, go ahead. If you knew more about them, and you can go ahead and read about them all you like, you’d agree with me.

    I know there is a tempatation to non liberals to be ALWAYS counter of the liberal thought. Liberals are about as often right as conservatives in reality though. They are both broken clocks.

    Monstanto is a rare example where the crunchie lefts nuts are actually correct. Terminator genes serve no scientific function, for example, it’s purely business.

    Monsanto has a fair amount of scary power with the FDA. If you think that money can’t buy anything, you’re a moron. Talk to Dairy farmer about BGH. Ask yourself why is it that it’s illegal to put on a box of milk “this milk contains no BGH”. That’s the law.

    Again, I don’t care to argue it. I know a pharmacuetical veternary PhD who would rail against them non stop. She worked for a biotech when I knew her. Talk somebody in the know is all I can say. I’m an electrical engineer, not a chemist, but I do have some familiarity.

    I define a company as “evil” (which simplistic in itself) as a company that doesn’t add value but extracts it. BGH causes a heffer to produce more milk, at a lower quality, and it reduces the lifespan of the animal. The net savings to the farmer, is about $0. It’s not very popular anymore.

    It was monsanto that decided it was a great idea to infuse animal feed with antibiotics.

    http://www.andyrowell.com/articles/monsanto.html

    Have you ever read Toxic Sludge is Good for you? Beware of any company that spends an excessive amount of money on PR to change attitudes. The book is fully documented, but it seems to incredible to be true.

    I don’t care to argue it, I doubt I can change your mind anyhow.

  9. Anonymous says:

    BTW:

    “Crops that cannot reproduce without human assistance are nothing new. Seedless watermelon is a good example.”

    Seedless watermelons are grown because of the benefit of them being seedless. Consumers don’t want to spit out seeds. That’s it.

    Terminator genes are a way to ensure that you will go back to Monsanto next year to get your next batch of seeds for your next crop.

  10. Rebecca says:

    Seeing that plants can only cover a specified area, I don’t think this would work very well. In order to have a complete land-mine tracking system, you’d need to cover a lot of land area with those plants. Now, I’m not saying they’re not pratical. It’s actually quite ingenius.

  11. Anne Haight says:

    Terminator genes serve no scientific function, for example, it’s purely business.

    So? Why is that a bad thing? What is wrong with a company protecting its investment and its property? They’re the ones who spent all the money and effort to create it. They own it. They have a right to determine how it is used, and by whom.

    BGH causes a heffer to produce more milk, at a lower quality, and it reduces the lifespan of the animal. The net savings to the farmer, is about $0. It’s not very popular anymore.

    That’s your key statement right there. Technology that’s no good will fail when exposed to the free market. People don’t want to drink milk with BGH in it, and it causes health problems in animals for some dairy farmers. Consequently, people stop buying it. It’s a self-correcting problem.

    I’m not reflexively rebutting your statements. You will notice that I do agree with some of them, and elaborate on others.

    Your dislike of Monsanto is duly noted, and I appreciate that you at least present some facts in support of your position. They’re not may favorite company either, but I won’t overlook the many positive things they have done. I also am not reflexively anti-corporation.

    I’m not interested in who’s right. I’m interested in the truth. I have no particular axe to grind with liberals as opposed to conservatives. Asshats come in many political flavors; being an asshat is an equal opportunity flaw.

  12. patricia weinrich says:

    i once blew up a landmine that took off my leg as a nurse surgeon. i know have a very prosperous fake leg that actually allos me to get around. i am happy with any efforts from these people getting rid of the mines and i dont care how they do it.

  13. mike hawk says:

    I hate these pacifists who believe they know everything about these landmines problems. they are all complaining about how mad they are becaues of the approaches that are being taken to eliminate them. i lived with my family in cambodia for many years and witnessed some of these horrible sightings of injuries. you pasifists that think we shouldn’t plant trees because it harms the plants and other economical values have no brains. o yea, asshats

  14. ryan says:

    this is just a fucking stupid ideas. you would have to go were there are mines to plant the fucking things

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