Glowing bacteria that finds landmines

Edinburgh University engineers have a plan to use genetically engineered bacteria that glow in the presence of explosives to detect landmines. The project is student-led, overseen by Alistair Elfick.

The bugs can be mixed into a colourless solution, which forms green patches when sprayed onto ground where mines are buried.

Edinburgh University said the microbes could be dropped by air onto danger areas.

Within a few hours, they would indicate where the explosives can be found.

The scientists produced the bacteria using a new technique called BioBricking, which manipulates packages of DNA.

Glowing bugs could find landmines (via Futurismic)

(Image: Landmine in ground, Cambodia, a Creative Commons Attribution photo from Kyle Simourd's Flickr stream)


  1. Edinburgh University said the microbes could be dropped by air onto danger areas.

    As positive as this development is, that quote is a bit sinister.

  2. Maybe it’s just me and my colour-blindness, but wouldn’t any other colour than green be a bit easier to see?

    1. Per photon, the human eye is most sensitive to green light. When dealing with photo-luminescent bacteria, you probably don’t get huge amounts of light, so efficiency counts. Plus GFP is all kinds of convenient.

      Since color doesn’t matter, just luminous intensity, it presumably shouldn’t be a big deal for colorblind individuals.

    2. The reason why night vision goggles are green is because our eyes are more sensitive to green light; the fact that the bacteria glow green is actually a plus.

  3. good cause… but
    a.) will they glow enough to be visible in daylight, or will you be searching for green patches at night? because that sounds totally safe.
    b.) will you be able to discern green patches of bacteria from grass…

  4. So is this bacteria going to die within a few hours and cause no adverse effects to the landscape whatsoever? Or is it going to feed off the explosives and mutate into giant blobs that consume everything in sight?

  5. ‘BioBricking’ — apparently it’s an open source database of genetic code run by the BioBrick Foundation. Pretty cool.

    Also, doesn’t seem anymore sinister than what can be accomplished with a giant payload of anthrax.

  6. arkizzle, uricacid: I’d bet they are using GFP. Green fluorescent protein is a common marker protein in molecular biology. It glows, so the color shouldn’t actually matter. And IIRC, it glows more when exposed to UV light, so there would probably be a detector involved – kind of like luminol on those fancy-schmany CSI shows.

    And BioBricking: not as fancy as it sounds. To my understanding, it’s just a pre-built, user-friendly method of cloning. It’s like… just running a Linux GUI but not fiddling with the kernel yourself. You still use the command line, which seems scary to people who love Windows Vista, but someone else has vastly simplified the system for you. (I’m sure there’s a better analogy, but I’m on the bio side, so I don’t know enough about OSes. ^_^)

  7. I’m assuming they could take aerial pictures at night, and then have them mapped for dealing with during the day. Very little glows enough that you can see it easily during daylight. Would be weird if you could then only travel the minefield safely at night. At night, non-luminescent grass looks black. I think this is pretty awesome.

  8. Easy to defeat: Spray huge areas where it is reasonable for mines to be with whatever specific chemical(s) the bacteria is reacting to. Likely it wouldn’t need to be the full explosive compound. When bacteria is air-dropped, the entire area lights up. Sappers grumble.

    Place actual mines as needed/financially viable. While Sappers are busy figuring out whether or not there are mines there or not, you are busy off doing something else.

    1. It’d work in the short term; but I suspect that that wouldn’t be terribly relevant.

      In the short term(i.e. while hostilities are actively ongoing in the area) you try to avoid having sappers grovelling around finding mines one at a time. You, if possible, clear them quickly but imperfectly with demining vehicles or explosives, to allow your army to pass.

      The real danger is in the long term, when you need to hunt them all down, so that use of the land, rather than simple traversal, can begin again. Since the explosives degrade over time, areas that started with more explosives will always have a higher concentration of explosives than will areas that started with less. Shortly after spraying, the whole area will light up light a christmas tree; but by the time whatever nastly little war caused the problem has simmered down, the locations that contain big chunks of pure explosive should be distinguishable from the ones that had a light dusting 5 years ago.

    2. I think the idea is for mine cleanup after the fact. And I bet a good rain washes it away.

      Dragonfrog puts it pretty well. This is for cleaning up the messes of the past, not for soldiers to navigate enemy mine fields.

    3. I’m pretty sure the primary goal here is to clear existing mine-fields in areas long since not under contention. There’s a lot of those around the world, and nobody really wants them to be there any more, but clearing them is dangerous and/or expensive.

  9. Why not take it to the next logical step, grow a bacteria that eats explosives (and nothing else)? It could be dropped into any area and destroy all the munitions including smokeless gunpowder and render your enemies defenseless. The step after this is to have a rouge agency release it worldwide.

  10. To further my last entry I pledge all my baseball cards, comic book/graphic novels and various extra bits of SCA armor to the University of Edinburgh student who grows and releases into the wild around the world a bacteria that could usher an end to small/large arms warfare.

  11. An interesting idea, but it’ll never be implemented.

    1) Minefields are prone to explosives contamination, so the false positive rate would be too high.

    2) Some types of mines would remain sealed, even after years in the ground. The false negative rate would be too high.

    Many clever ideas have been produced to help de-mining, but- unfortunately- as the human cost is far too high, errors are most unwelcome. Manual probing remains the only viable tool. I worked for years as an explosives chemist; a high false positive rate and a high false negative rate constitutes a non-viable technique for locating mines.

  12. Hasn’t this already been done, but using plants, which is a much slower process?

    Plants would be more reliable, though, since the plant roots actually penetrate the ground and the plant flowers (which are colored differently in the presence of mines) stick up where humans can see them.

    Also, conceivably local fauna will convergently evolve with the plants and their DNA will “learn” to avoid the ones that show mines.

  13. I have to say, I like this idea of being able to detect land mines visually by looking for a bio-luminescence, but in a combat situation I could see problems with this. If the bacteria just looks for explosive compounds or elements in a explosive compounds then weapons on soldiers would start to glow (bullets, grenades, rockets, etc…) making them stand out to the enemy. Of course the converse would happen too, enemy soldiers would stand out as well, namely those handling explosive compounds (IEDs).

  14. There was a project with a similar idea a while ago – GM plants whose leaves grow a different colour when their soil has TNT breakdown products in it. I think the idea was similar – the seeds are scattered from a plane in spring, and by summer the mines are flagged.

    The objections people are voicing may be technically true (it can be defeated by certain types of mines, etc.), I wonder to what extent they may also not be terribly valid.

    What I mean is, I would guess that armies that use high-quality, well-sealed mines, probably also aren’t the same ones that indiscriminately mine farmland in order to inflict misery on future generations of peasant farmers. Those ones would likely be using the cheapest mines available to them at the time.

    And by the time a nasty civil war has calmed down enough that you’re contemplating how to demine vast tracts of farmland, it’s probably been years since the mines were laid, and you may know pretty well what sort of mines you’re dealing with and what techniques apply to them.

    I dunno though – my closest contact with demining is that a friend of mine once did some, I think it was in Bosnia. I know nothing about it myself…

    1. “What I mean is, I would guess that armies that use high-quality, well-sealed mines, probably also aren’t the same ones that indiscriminately mine farmland in order to inflict misery on future generations of peasant farmers. Those ones would likely be using the cheapest mines available to them at the time.”

      That’s not exactly the case. Some mines like the PFM-1 “butterfly” landmine are tightly sealed, and contain relatively small quantities of explosive. They can be buried in leaf detritus, so although they can be dispensed by air and are not strictly “buried” like we think of landmines, they present a considerable threat, particularly if they don’t go off. From this web page:

      note that there’s the PFM-1S, which has a 24-hour autodestruct mechanism; of course, these are never 100%, so unexploded ordnance (UXO) may remain.

      Hands-and-knees probing is the only solution approaching 100%. Trusting lives to some wacky spray or a plant that supposedly changes color will never replace manual detection and removing. For those of us that don’t live in countries with a landmine threat, it’s easy to forget this. In areas where buried mines may be heavily overgrown by trees (Bosnia and Croatia, for example), these suckers can be really hard to detect.

      1. Wouldn’t metal detectors be more optimal than hand probing? From what I understand you can detect bits of metal even several feet underground, and even if it shell if ceramic, you’d have to have some metal in it, right?

        1. On decent mines, virtually no metal. With a plastic case and a chemical/mechanical detonator, you can avoid nearly all metal parts.

      2. Frig, that’s vicious! I guess these sorts of schemes could be useful in come cases though, when you know pretty well what types of mines are in an area.

        I suppose another angle is – if people are being forced by starvation to farm land that may be mined (or forced by the possibility of landmines to starve to death, I guess), then any measure that increases the likelihood of detecting mines is worthwhile.

        1. The knowledge that the default demining mechanism is little ragged children with big eyes does put most other options in perspective.

  15. @ #7: I assumed (although possibly incorrectly, of course) that this is primarily more for de-mining old fields that are no longer part of an active combat zone, ie. so that kids can start playing soccer there without fear of losing their extremities/lives. No matter what you spray it with, X years of weather and growth would wash away the surface traces, leaving only the actual buried explosives to trigger the glow.

  16. Cue angry reaction from PETA about abusing our companion bacteria in 3 … 2 … 1.

    (Followed, of course, by squealing from the “frankenfood” nitwits.)

    1. If you insist… I think it is a cover for chemtrail experiments to further the agenda of our alien reptoid overlords and their Illuminati henchmen.

      You know you’re all thinking it.

  17. Can we please turn up our skepticism here?

    We are shown no pictures, no field tests, not even a hint that it has successfully worked anywhere.

    If this does use GFP, then it would be very hard to make it work. GFP doesn’t “glow”, it fluoresces – it emits green light when exposed to blue light. And it emits roughly one photon for every hundred thousand you throw at it. So you would flood the area with bright blue light and look for weak green light (so it must be done in the dark). It could be done with the right filters, I guess. But instead of “glowing bacteria that finds landmines” this is “bacteria that express GFP upon binding molecules X, Y, and Z” – the post is misleading, although this is still an impressive feat of synthetic biology.

  18. I don’t think the actual link mentions the use of GFP, and I have my doubts that they would use GFP anyway. GFP is typically used to create a fusion protein, but when its created its permanently fluorescing. The chromaphore that causes GFP to glow does not need to react with any substrate, which makes it very popular for use in biochemistry- it’s not a single-shot deal like luciferase. The only way that you could use a GFP fusion protein for land mine detection is whatever protein that is created in response to the substrate chemical from the landmine is highly regulated, and only produced in response to the landmine.

    What strikes me as more likely is that the product of a transgenic protein turns green, giving the bacteria their distinctive color. That would likely be something similar to luciferase, but using another product instead of luciferin.

    An interesting unintended consequence of this development, however, is that you actually may get more than just glowing biobricked bacteria is that they’re using plasmids as a transmission vector when growing bacteria. That means in theory they could pass on their plasmids to other bacteria that are similar enough to allow crossing over. Because biobricking uses common enough restriction enzymes, I could see other bacteria adopting this fluorescing reaction for other substrates as well.

  19. In answer to the poster who asks about the problem of colour blindness.
    Surly this comes down to Darwin, survival of the fittest.

  20. This project has been around for at least a decade. Am I to presume that they’ve created an actual production process, or simply engineered an organism to express GFP on contact with TNT?

    The ones previously mentioned did not work with RDX landmines, only TNT.

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