Thursday, July 12, 2007

Harnessing Nature to Fight Back against Minefields

One of the classic narrative conflicts is man versus nature. But how do you classify a story of man using nature to combat his own worst exploits? Throughout the twentieth century humans rendered landscapes throughout the world impassible through the use of land mines. Now, the always-fantastic Pruned reports, scientists are developing schemes to reclaim these areas by modifying living creatures.

In Denmark, a biotech company has developed a modified form of thale-cress, a common weed, that will turn red when in proximity to an old mine:
[I]ts leaves turn red when the plant comes in contact with nitrogen dioxide — a compound that naturally leaches into the soil from unexploded land mines made from plastic and held together by leaky rubber seals. Aresa is growing large patches of the stuff on old army shooting ranges that have been seeded with land mines.

. . . .

[Developer Jarne] Elleholm says Aresa's technique can cover five times as much ground in the same amount of time as other detection techniques.

Aresa uses a seeding hose known as a "hydroseeder" — groundskeepers use such a hose to grow green grass on golf courses — to cover about a football field of territory in a day. After four to five weeks the thale-cress will have sprouted and turned red if it encounters nitrogen dioxide. Normally, plants neutralize nitrogen dioxide, which they recognize as harmful. But Aresa scientists, led by founder [Carsten] Meier, have genetically engineered thale-cress, fusing its nitrogen dioxide neutralizer with an enzyme that creates red pigment (plants naturally produce red pigment, which isn't visible until the green disappears in autumn).
Link. Meanwhile, in Croatia, Professor Nikola Kezic is training honeybees to find the mines other detection methods cannot:
Training the bees to find mines takes place in a large net tent pitched on a lawn at the university's Faculty of Agriculture.

A hive of bees sits at one end, with several feeding points for the bees set up around the tent.

But only a few of the feeding points contain food, and the soil immediately around them has been impregnated with explosive chemicals.

The idea is that the bees' keen sense of smell soon associates the smell of explosives with food. So far this has proved successful.

Prof Kezic says that training the bees takes only three or four days.
Link. Of course, Kezic's method depends on there being any honeybees left. And what to do when you actually find the explosives still embedded in the ground? The answer might lie with yet a third kingdom of life:
When explosives are used for mining or demolition, some may fail to detonate and get lost in the rubble. [Robert] Riggs reckons the remedy could be to mix pellets of dormant fungal spores in with the explosive charge before inserting the wick into the explosive package.

The dry spores lie dormant while the explosives are in storage and, if the charge detonates as intended, will get blown to smithereens.

But if the explosive fails to detonate, water from the air should migrate down the wick and into the charge. The spores should then germinate and devour the charge, rendering it harmless.
Link. Why stop with fungi? Perhaps mold could be used to migrate beneath the mine casing, cutting off the detonator from the charge or the trigger. Perhaps archaea, which thrive in extreme environments like geysers and deep-sea vents, could feed off a mine's nitrogen compounds and eat the explosive from the inside out.

Or perhaps no living thing will be able to outmaneuver the destructive capacity of society itself.


Perhaps even higher-order animals can locate and avoid land mines. Biologist Michael Chase of Elephants Without Borders believes elephants migrating back into war-torn regions of Africa quickly learned to avoid, if not the land mines themselves, then at least the minefields:
Chase said that when the initial migration began a number of elephants had their trunks and legs blown off by mines, condemning the animals to agonizing deaths. But the elephants that followed since have avoided those areas.

. . . .

"Once I overlay the movements of our five satellite-collared elephants with the location of [the known] mine fields, it would appear that they were avoiding these areas."

. . . .

"We have not seen any evidence of elephants being blown up or injured by land mine explosions in the three years we have been working in this area," he said.
Link (via Zooillogix).

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Image credits: "The Gods Were Kind . . . perhaps," JFA-japan, courtesy Flickr, borrowed for news-reporting and comment purposes.


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