Research to start to curb landmines injuries
In what could be a major breakthrough in combating landmine injuries and deaths in conflict zones, local scientists have helped develop genetically modified tobacco plants so that their leaves turn red when grown near minefields.
The modified plant would make the process of eradicating landmines more efficient as they can easily be seen from a distance.
The University of Stellenbosch's Agronomic Department has entered into a research agreement with Danish plant biotechnology company Aresa to test the viability of the plant.
Aresa developed the "RedDetect" technology in a weed called Thales cress which was too small to be seen from a distance, said Stellenbosch agronomic researcher Estelle Kempen.
The tobacco plant was then chosen as it is known to grow well in a wide range of environmental conditions, is hardy and easy to breed and any changes in colour could easily be seen because of its large leaves, said Biosafety SA manager Dr Hennie Groenewald.
The plants were transformed with an activation gene from the snapdragon plant, which enables them to detect nitrogen dioxide, a by-product of landmines, in contaminated soil. This releases anthocyanin, a natural red plant pigment, into the leaves.
Stellenbosch researchers have applied for a Genetic Modification Organism permit for permission to conduct field trials, which they hope to receive by the end of October.
The plant has been tested in Europe but must be studied under different temperature, rainfall and lighting conditions.
If they receive the permit, they plan to run field trials from November to March 2009 to see how the plants react in these environmental conditions.
Trials would take place at Welgevallen experimental farm on the outskirts of Stellenbosch, said Kempen.
The trials would also test whether the plants only turned red when exposed to explosive compounds and not under any other type of environmental stress, added Groenewald.
A high-pressure hose would be used to spray the seeds over a large area where landmines were thought to be. Planting could then take place without having to risk human lives, said Groenewald.
Aresa will apply for a permit for general release of the plant if the trials are successful.
During the trials no flowers would be produced and no seeds would disperse, so the gene could not be transferred to any other plants.
Over 80 countries around the world, including Serbia, Mozambique and Angola, are affected by landmines, said Groenewald.
Von: 23.07.2008, www.iol.co.za by Michelle Jones