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May 15, 2006 1:41 AM   Subscribe

bomb sniffing flowers. Danish, Canadian and U.S. scientists are closing in on a genetically engineered plant that will send up a floral signal: “DANGER—land mines below." Scientists in Denmark have been tinkering with Arabidopsis thaliana [...] to produce a plant [that] will turn a warning red whenever close to a land mine.” Arabidopsis can be genetically sensitized to the nitrogen-dioxide (NO2) that leaches from buried explosives.
posted by Tryptophan-5ht (29 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
I like this idea. I don't like the idea of covering great swarthes of the world's surface in a genetically modified non-native plant. But that's just the ecologist in me. In principal, it's kinda cool.
posted by Jimbob at 2:01 AM on May 15, 2006


Well, I would say better GE plants than landmines. This is a perfect example of why the much maligned "terminator" (infertile) modifications would be useful - plant these indicator crops with the terminator modifications, dig up all the landmines, and let the plants die at the end of the year without producing seed.
posted by scodger at 2:11 AM on May 15, 2006


Well when it's going to be used like that, it's not such a bad idea at all. A few factors come into play, though; in what environments is it going to be used? It might be a bit of a ruderal, but it won't grow everywhere. And what if the target area is already covered with vegetation, and Arabidopsis can't compete with the native vegetation? I guess these just limit it's usefulness in certain locations. On the whole, nice work.
posted by Jimbob at 2:23 AM on May 15, 2006


“Within three to six weeks from being sowed over land mine infested areas the small plant...will turn a warning red whenever close to a land mine.”

This is really interesting. So, effectively, when planning on invading a country they could air drop massive payloads of seeds on to the planned frontline to 'stake out' possible mine fields. Assuming the other guys don't have the latest in anti-seed defense systems.
posted by slimepuppy at 2:25 AM on May 15, 2006


What a clever idea! I just wonder if it will grow where needed...? Here is a crude map I found suggesting that Africa will remain screwed, but there may be hope for Afghanistan & Indochina (at a pinch).
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:32 AM on May 15, 2006


Arabisopsis has long been used as a model plant for genetic sequencing and research (a bit like Drosophila and E. coli), so it's interesting that they've found a use for it.
posted by Jimbob at 3:11 AM on May 15, 2006


More of science imitating/integrating nature into technology- sounds like a good idea- reminds me of bomb-detector bees
http://www.scienceinafrica.co.za/2004/january/beeslandmines.htm

(first post)
posted by D J Robertstein at 3:34 AM on May 15, 2006


Jimbob, arabidopsis has already been used for production of stuff like antibodies (if you only consider products a "use") but the plant is so so small that it's generally impractical for commercial applications, except in this case, where small isn't a disadvantage.
posted by rxrfrx at 4:03 AM on May 15, 2006


Presumably, this would work for other kids of unexploded munitions, such as those still strewn around parts of Europe from the World Wars. Of course, they might not be densely packed enough for such an approach to be worthwhile.
posted by sindark at 4:07 AM on May 15, 2006


First you sell them the mines, then you sell them the flowers :) Ahhhh the wonderful world of corporate profit !
posted by elpapacito at 4:20 AM on May 15, 2006


Africa will remain screwed, but there may be hope for Afghanistan & Indochina

It's not stated in the article, but I would assume they're doing the work on Arabidopsis thaliana because they're used to dealing with it, and that the modifications would then be "ported" over to plants that could actually survive in the target environments.

But I am not a botanical engineer, so it's only an assumption...
posted by Vetinari at 4:22 AM on May 15, 2006


And what if the target area is already covered with vegetation, and Arabidopsis can't compete with the native vegetation?

Oh, I don't know, maybe apply a defoliant first? OK, maybe not that one. There must be defoliants that aren't quite as bad as Agent Orange.

But speaking of defoliants, people fighting against the offensive use of these plants (against invading armies trying to find defensive mines) might force defenders to use fast, nasty defoliants to kill mine-sniffing plants before the invaders discover their mines.

Still, in the right conditions this plant could save civilian lives.
posted by pracowity at 4:23 AM on May 15, 2006


wasn't Agent Orange primarily harmful to people because of dioxin contamination? I mean, the active ingredient isn't known for being nearly as dangerous.
posted by rxrfrx at 4:38 AM on May 15, 2006


Slightly off-topic:
I dislike the term "terminator gene" - it is reminiscent of dark, terrible technology and stirs up deep fears in the lowbrow psyche. The plants are just plain old sterile.

But I guess "sterile plant" doesn't sell as many tabloids to the supermarket checkout-line denizens as "terminator gene in your food".
posted by spazzm at 4:55 AM on May 15, 2006


I dislike the term "terminator gene"

I believe that was Monsanto's term.
posted by rough ashlar at 5:12 AM on May 15, 2006


First bomb sniffing dogs and now pretty bomb sniffing flowers! Cute teams up to rid the world of evil!

Awesome.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:49 AM on May 15, 2006


I believe that was Monsanto's term.

That's allright - I don't like Monsanto either.

You don't have to like Monsanto to like biotech anymore than you have to like Microsoft to like computers.

Monsanto - the Microsoft of biotech
posted by spazzm at 5:50 AM on May 15, 2006


hmm. So it only works during springtime?

I understand that this flower was chosen because it's well-understood by the scientific community. But it doesn't sound like it will actually be all that useful as a detection device.

Now, if you could gengineer dandilions or another flowering weed, and make sure that the leaves change color too . . .
posted by xthlc at 7:56 AM on May 15, 2006


These white flowers are really pretty, but to complete my bouquet I'll need a few of the beautiful red BLAMMO!!!
posted by CynicalKnight at 8:05 AM on May 15, 2006


Yeah, the "Gardener" job description just got a lot more hazardous.
posted by exlotuseater at 8:12 AM on May 15, 2006


Non-minespotting bees are so fucked now.
posted by saysthis at 9:23 AM on May 15, 2006


"Non-minespotting bees are so fucked now."

But now they can see which flowers are near mines! Bees win again!
posted by D J Robertstein at 9:46 AM on May 15, 2006


Monsanto is more like the United Fruit Company of biotech.

No, they aren't quite that evil, no massacres (that I know of). But they have systematically ruined farmers whose fields have been invaded by their crops (people who didn't want Monsanto's seeds to start with) for copywrite/intellectual property infringement. Microsoft plays hardball, but they aren't as far off the deepend.
posted by jb at 1:29 PM on May 15, 2006


rxrfrx - you've got it backwards. Agent Orange by itself is a potent defoliant and was used because in early tests it showed little toxicity to animals/humans.

However, a breakdown product of Agent Orange - various dioxins - are extremely teratogenic.
posted by porpoise at 1:50 PM on May 15, 2006



Monsanto is more like the United Fruit Company of biotech.


Fair enough. Allow me to re-state my position:

You don't have to like Monsanto to like biotech any more than you have to like the United Fruit Company to enjoy apples.
posted by spazzm at 2:37 PM on May 15, 2006


Another issue is how close do the plants have to be to mines in order to produce red flowers? And let's say you remove a mine near the plant, there's still no telling whether there are more mines remaining.

Generally I like the idea, though. It's much better than the alternative.
posted by Devils Slide at 3:05 PM on May 15, 2006


I prefer the use of diseased cattle for landmine detonation.
posted by bugmuncher at 3:50 PM on May 15, 2006


I believe that was Monsanto's term.

I dont think it was Monsanto's term for it . It was a colloquialism given to the technology.
posted by dhruva at 7:51 PM on May 15, 2006


I dislike the term "terminator gene" - it is reminiscent of dark, terrible technology and stirs up deep fears in the lowbrow psyche. The plants are just plain old sterile.


There is slightly more to the problem of 'plain old sterile' seeds then you have alluded to.

With seeds refined by traditional methods, (ie. time consuming cross breeding) a farmer can make a single purchase from seed banks. After the first season he can harvest part of the crop and leave the rest to seed. He would then be able to use these remaining seeds for the next season.

Terminator genes help protect the Biotech companies' development investment (and maximise their profit) by preventing farmers from producing their own seeds in the traditional way. Their argument is based on sound patent law, yet the implications are horrific.

Monsanto's GM seeds are purchased on a subscription basis. Farmers are locked into expensive seed buying contracts, for a natural product they used to able to grow for free. Its a situation they are often forced into(ill dig out sources if anyone is interested) The problem is asymmetrical power structures and stands as a jarring contradiction to most people's aspirations for global equity.

So worrying about the origins of the word 'terminator' misses the point. The ridiculous tabloid notion that these genes might somehow tarnish our microwave dinners is even more laudable when you consider the implications of such tactics on the majority of farmers.

Off topic, I know.
posted by verisimilitude at 11:43 AM on May 16, 2006 [1 favorite]


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