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Flower-power could help clear landmines

Researchers in Denmark have developed a genetically modified flower that may help detect landmines.
/ Source: Reuters

A Danish biotech company has developed a genetically modified flower that could help detect landmines and it hopes to have a prototype ready for use within a few years.

"We are really excited about this, even though it's early days. It has considerable potential," Simon Oestergaard, chief executive of developing company Aresa Biodetection, told Reuters in an interview Tuesday.

The genetically modified weed has been coded to change color when its roots come in contact with nitrogen-dioxide, or NO2, evaporating from explosives buried in soil.

Within three to six weeks from being sowed over landmine infested areas the small plant, a Thale Cress, will turn a warning red whenever close to a landmine.

According to data compiled by Aresa, more than 100 million landmines have been spread out in 45 countries, hidden killers that often remain for years after a conflict is over.

Oestergaard said the problem of sowing the seeds in a potential landmine could be overcome by clearing strips through a field by conventional methods or by using crop planes.

Currently landmines are mostly removed by putting a stick into the ground to locate the mine, then removing it and detonating it. Dogs and metal detectors are also often used.

"We don't think our invention will completely replace other methods. The main target of this product is soil that will be used for different agricultural activities," Oestergaard said.

Although there are no official figures for the number of victims of landmines, peace activists say tens of thousands are injured, maimed or killed each year.

Aresa's invention, based on research at the Institute of Molecular Biology at Copenhagen University, uses a plant's normal reaction to turn red or brown when subjected to stressful conditions such as cold or drought, but has genetically coded it to react only to nitrogen-dioxide.

Tests start this year
Aresa has succeeded in growing the genetically modified plant and hopes to launch restricted tests this year and to apply for field tests in Denmark and abroad after that.

Oestergaard said a prototype could be on the market within a couple of years but he declined to give a more specific date.

The use of landmines was outlawed in the 1997 Ottawa Convention and more than 90 countries committed themselves last year to cleaning up the debris of war to reduce the number of civilian casualties from munitions left by armed conflicts.

Aresa, a private company, is currently seeking strategic partners to speed up its development, both through financial and intellectual support, and has filed for intellectual property protection under the Patent Cooperation Treaty.

Oestergaard said Aresa's scientists were not the only ones trying to use genetically modified plants to detect landmines but its research was entirely independent from other projects.

It hopes to use the Thale Cress also for detecting and cleaning soil contaminated by heavy metals such as lead, copper, zinc and chromium, a major source of pollution in many industrialized countries.

Oestergaard said the modified weed was infertile and unable to spread its seeds, meaning the risk was minimal that the plant would spread into unwanted areas.