Tuesday, April 03, 2007


A weed that turns red when it grows near land mines could help clear dangerous fields in war-torn countries such as Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The genetically modified Thales cress is sensitive to nitrogen dioxide, a byproduct of mines, and changes from green to red when the gas is present in soil.

Currently, mines can be detected only by human or canine probing. Scientists hope the plant will show where the land mines are so they can be removed safely, greatly reducing fatalities and injuries among those who hunt for mines and the unsuspecting public.

Danish biotechnology company Aresa Biodetection, which is creating the genetically altered plant, hopes to start selling it within a few years, after researchers complete field tests on its effectiveness.

Lab results so far look promising, says Simon Oestergaard, chief executive of Aresa. He envisions that the plant will be used mostly to clear fields suitable for farming. "The main target of this product is soil that will be used for different agricultural activities," he says.

One concern, however, is that the weed is shallow-rooted, so it would not be able to detect deeply planted mines. But most mines are found closer to the surface, says Geir Bjoersvik of the mine action unit at Norwegian Peoples Aid in Oslo.

Field tests, scheduled to start in Denmark this spring and in other countries soon after, will determine how sensitive the plant is to nitrogen dioxide and how much of the gas is required to make it turn red. So far, the plant has shown signs of being oversensitive. "It's better to have a red spot and check it and find there isn't a mine than miss one that's there," Dr. Meier says.

The plant is self-pollinating. Researchers also removed the gene for an important growth hormone, which eliminates the risk of spreading pollen to unmodified plants because the new weed neither germinates nor sets seeds unless a specific fertilizer is used.

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