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Bacteria and lasers can detect landmines

AP

Buried landmines can now be detected using bacteria engineered to sense explosive vapors, according to a new study in Nature Biotechnology.

Why it matters: There were more than 6,000 landmine-related casualties recorded in 2015. One of the biggest challenges in clearing landmines is finding them. Bacteria — along with plants and animals — have been proposed for detecting undetonated devices before, but this is the first demonstration of how bacterial sensors might work in the field.

How it works: Explosive vapors seep out of buried landmines and build up in the soil above them. Researchers genetically engineered bacteria that emit a fluorescent signal when they come into contact with vapors from the devices. They scattered the bacteria across a test field and then detected those that glowed with a laser. They searched for 18 landmine targets and only failed to detect four of them.

What's next: The researchers envision outfitting drones with the laser scanners, which would require a more compact design. They also caution they need to address how the bacteria can be removed after use and how to scale the technique so they can scan larger land areas.

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