U of A scientits join war against landmines (USA/ Canada)
OTTAWA -- Researchers working for the Canadian and U.S. militaries, including some in Edmonton, are making progress in developing genetically modified plants that could help people avoid death and injury from landmines.
The researchers at the University of Alberta, Duke University in North Carolina and other schools are trying to develop plants that will alert people to the presence of landmines by changing colour if their roots detect compounds, such as TNT, used in mines.
"I think we're about two or three years from something that might be practical in the field," Prof. Michael Deyholos at the U of A said in an interview.
"We're a lot closer than we were."
Deyholos and others, working for the last two years, have faced a three-part problem.
They have had to develop a receptor gene that can detect TNT and be spliced into a plant's roots.
Once the TNT is detected, the plants must then be able to transmit the information to their leaves or shoots, much in the way hormones are transferred throughout the human body.
Then, more receptors are needed in the shoots or leaves to make them change colour.
Using a weed called an arabidopsis, the U of A team has solved part of the equation.
"We have had the arabidopsis roots change colour ... but we have not had the shoots change colour," Deyholos said.
Researchers at other facilities have made progress on other aspects of the project, and the goal is to have all the successful components put into one type of plant.
The seeds could be dropped from an airplane over a suspected minefield. After a few weeks of growth, soldiers and civilians could judge by the plants' colours whether the area is safe.
The plants could be a huge help to civilians who want to reclaim farmland after a war.
The United Nations estimates there are more than 110 million landmines buried around the world, with Angola alone having 10 million landmines and an amputee population of 70,000.
In a newly released research paper, Deyholos and his colleagues say landmine-detecting plants would be inexpensive and effective even in developing countries.
Deyholos is optimistic a way will be found to fill the gap between TNT-detecting roots and leaves.
"Plants naturally are able to send chemicals through their sap, so the roots can tell the leaves, 'We don't have a lot of water or we don't have a lot of nutrients, so you'd better slow down your growth.'
"So the framework is there, and now we're just looking at some different kinds of modifications we can make to those chemicals to make them work as artificial hormones."
Von: 8.5.2006 www.edmontonsun.com