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Published on July 29th, 2008 | by Sam Aola Ooko


Genetically Engineered Tobacco Bio-Sensor to Detect Landmines

a cambodian boy victim of a land mineScientists in South Africa are testing a genetically engineered tobacco plant which detects the presence of nitrogen-dioxide, a marker for landmines, to turn red, in the hope that it may eventually be used to clear mine fields in post-conflict zones around the globe.

The team is part of a joint initiative of University of Stellenbosch and the Danish biotechnology firm, Aresa, which has developed the “RedDetect” bio-sensor technology in a weed called Thales Cress.

The weed changes color from green to autumnal red when it detects nitrogen dioxide leaching from mines buried in the soil.

Because the weed is too small to be seen from a safe distance, the scientists went looking for a more viable alternative, and landed on the tobacco plant, which grows easily in most parts of the world, with a little help from genetic engineering.

Stellenbosch researcher, Estelle Kempen, who is involved with the project says if the genetically engineered tobacco plants prove successful, they would provide an easy way to assess an entire field allowing the safe clearance of land mines and other unexploded ordnance devices on agricultural land.

Many countries around the world, including Angola, Burundi and Somalia in Africa; Afghanistan, Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia (where organizations as Clear Path International are working), Iraq, Nepal and Sri Lanka in Asia; Chechnya and Bosnia- Herzegovina in Europe and Colombia in Latin America, are worst affected by the problem of land mines.

A land mine is an explosive device designed to be placed on or in the ground to explode when triggered by an operator or the proximity of a vehicle, person, or animal.

Currently, land mines are cleared by explosives experts who put a stick in the ground to locate them, or they use remote devices or sniffer dogs, which are all costly and dangerous processes that typically involve a random check of just a fraction of the area .

Field trials for the genetically engineered tobacco varieties are already under way in Serbia, and now the scientists want to assess how the genetically engineered tobacco responds to drought and extreme temperatures, according to the researchers.

But at this research stage, to safeguard against any possible environmental effects of the genetically modified plants, they would be analyzed and destroyed before they began flowering to minimize the risk of environmental contamination.

Tobacco plants usually only produce red plant pigments in their flowers, which arises from a natural compound called anthocyanin, found in fruit such as apples and tomatoes. The technology developed by Aresa activates anthocyanin in the tobacco plant’s leaves if there is soil contamination from explosives such as land mines.

Image credit: CPI at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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About the Author

Sam is a green journalist and media practitioner based in and writing from Nairobi, Kenya. He runs SolarGren Media, a public interest media organization dedicated to promoting eco-consciousness in Africa and the world. When he is not blogging or thinking green, he spends time promoting freedom of information and human rights reporting on his beloved continent.

8 Responses to Genetically Engineered Tobacco Bio-Sensor to Detect Landmines

  1. Pingback: nerdd.net | news and opinion

  2. ThaiMed says:

    This could certainly help clear up places like Cambodia.

    More available land means more opportunity for investment and development.

  3. Jim Jones says:

    Wow now that is some pretty cool technology!


  4. bill says:

    I think a more practical application would be to determine what makes the tobacco turn red in the presence of NO2 and spray that over a wide area and by the patch of red showing over a shorter period of time determine where the land mines are located. However, I think, though I might be wrong that there are going to be a lot of false positives. What other vapors are given off or leach into the ground from a mine? A combination of two indicator colors showing at the same place and time would lead to fewer false positives.

  5. Dan says:

    Amazing stuff and best of luck to the South Africans.

    This is just the tip of the iceberg too, heavy metals, salt and even chemical contaminants are likely to be cleaned up by these sort of GM plants in the future.

  6. Dr. A. Muthusamu says:

    The RedDetect technology is very interesting and really useful in future. My congratulations to the Head and team of the group for such wonderful research and the output.

  7. Michael says:

    The extreme danger of land mines pales in comparison to the releasing of yet another genetically modified organism in to our planet’s ecosystem.Don’t be conned by the Monsanto types.

  8. The team is part of a joint University of Stellenbosch and the Danish biotechnology firm, Aresa, which has developed the “RedDetect” bio-sensor technology in a weed called Thales cress. The RedDetect technology is really useful in future. Great to the Head and team of the group for such wonderful research and the output. thumbs up!!

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