Glowing dirt? How luminescent bacteria could save lives

Cole Crystal, DCNF

Using glowing bacteria to find landmines may sound crazy, but a new study from Hebrew University in Israel points to evidence that it may help find buried explosives.

Hebrew University has been working with the E. coli bacterium for over a decade in order to see if they can detect fallen armaments and landmines from past conflicts, according to a report from The New York Times.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines says that more than 5,550 people were killed or injured due to landmines in 2019. Of that number, 80% were civilians. Explosives, such as anti-personnel landmines, number in the hundreds of millions, according to the ICBL.

Many have been following the decade-long journey of Hebrew University and its developments with the newly created bacterium.

Previous methods of detecting land mines, like using trained animals such as dogs and rats, have various costs and benefits, the NYT previously reported. However, the bacterium method allows for a potentially safer option to those attempting to seek-and-remove the mines.

The idea for the method traces back to the 1990s, when Dr. Robert Burlage of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory supposed that glowing bacteria could be used to identify toxic waste. However, what he called “My tale of woe” would unfortunately not be completed, the NYT reported, because he was only able to secure limited funding and few tests.

Israeli scientists, inspired by Burlage’s research, decided that using bacteria could be a better alternative than less expendable canines and rodents.

The process involves marine bacteria and E. coli bacteria mixed together in order to create a new bacterium, which glows once triggered by certain chemicals through coding in their DNA.

The scientists then specified the bacterium to identify a volatile byproduct of trinitrotoluene, or TNT, so that explosives in land mines could be identified.

After being made into small beads, the bacterium uses its housing as a food source while it waits to react to potential fumes from the dirt, at which point they will turn green.

The science isn’t flawless, yet, according to a Microbial Biotechnology report. Scientists are still accounting for city and moonlight that might drown out the low glimmer of the modified E. coli, as well as high temperatures that can nullify the bacterium.

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