Few of us ever come close to mines – the dreadful explosives buried in the ground with the specific intention of killing other people, indirectly. So a recent story in the New York Times about Israeli researchers developing living land sensors which show where mines are, might not mean much to you.
But it does to me. I remember, when we were getting our orientation to observe the 1996 Bosnian election, hearing about mines that jumped up and hit people in the abdomen, and how mines were laid in circles to hit people who came to help. I remember the Swiss colonel, in charge of communications for the mission, who told me that his men were only allowed to relieve themselves on the pavement – it was not safe to wander into the brush along the road.
And I remember, as we – my interpreter and driver and myself – were high up in the hills on a rough road and I had no idea if it had been mined and if I would be responsible for blowing all of us up. (I got advice from the experts, and learned to look out for rough, disturbed patches near bridges.) For almost a year, after I got home, I always walked on the paved road or sidewalks and I have met others who were in Bosnia who had the same experience.
Some years back, in southern Sudan, we were driving along the road to the border with Kenya when we came across a crew that was detonating mines along the road, which was being widened as part of road improvement.
So I have always been interested in the work to find and identify mines (in Bosnia, the maps of where they had been laid had reportedly been lost, and in any case, there was a steady process of digging up mines and relaying them somewhere else).
A campaign to ban the use of anti-personnel landmines led to a 1999 treaty dealing with their use and, since it came into force on March 1, 1999, more than 48 million stockpiled mines have been destroyed and 159 countries have destroyed their stockpiles or declared that they did not possess stockpiles to destroy, according to Wikipedia.
Still, there may be as many as 110 million landmines from past conflicts that are buried and still haven’t been found. In 2019, more than 5,500 people were killed or injured by landmines and explosive remnants of war, and 80% of them were civilians, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
For a long time, demining was carried out by demining crews, working carefully and painstakingly. Then came Hero Rats, which were trained to detect land mines by scent; they were light enough that they did not detonate mines. Working with demining crews, the mine-detecting rats and the dogs they work with speed up the process of finding the mines, thus speeding up land clearing that makes it possible for farmers to resume cultivating crops.
But that still doesn’t prevent accidents in areas that are not known to be mine fields, and that is why the Israeli research is so exciting. They have found a way to use bacteria that glow like miniature fireflies when landmines are present.
The idea apparently began with an American scientist in the 1990s. He was working in Tennessee on getting bacteria to light up in response to organic waste and mercury when he decided to try targeting the chemicals in land mines. He did some field tests but couldn’t get any more funding for the work. However, his experiments inspired the researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The Israeli team tinkered with the genetic code of E coli bacteria to detect and light up when it finds a chemical that seeps into soil around land mines, using genes from marine bacteria that naturally emit light in the ocean.
One key challenge is to safely locate the glowing bacteria in a real minefield, because it is so faint that it could be overpowered by the moon, stars or nearby cities, and they’re working on how to address this problem. Another issue is temperature – the bacteria work only between 59 and 99 degrees Fahrenheit, so their use would be problematic in hot deserts.
The researchers recently did field tests in Israel, collaborating with the Israeli army and an Israeli defense company, and according to the story, said they were “generally very successful.” The story is illustrated with a dramatic picture of bacteria glowing.
If this research turns into a final product that can be used widely in the field, this will be a huge advance forward for communities around the world whose land is blighted and whose people are threatened by these appalling weapons. I wish them much success with their research..