Super-hero mice to sniff out explosives

Last Updated 16 October 2012, 16:12 IST

Scientists have engineered a “super-hero” sniffer mice that could be used by armed forces and aid workers to smell out land-mines and explosives.

The “danger mice” have been genetically modified so that their noses are hundreds of times more sensitive to the scent of explosives than house mice.

Scientists at the City University of New York have created mice that have up to 500 times more of nose cells that detect TNT-like chemicals, using the GM technology, the Daily Mail reported.

The mice could be deployed in future, to countries scarred by war to rapidly sniff out land-mines, which are then cleared by a human handler.

The project, funded by the US government’s health research arm, may sound rather off-the-wall, the idea of super-sniffer rodents is not without precedent.
A Belgian charity already uses giant African rats to sniff out TNT and has deployed them in Mozambique and Tanzania and on the Thai-Burmese border.

While the so called HeroRATs are very good at their job, however, it takes nine months of painstaking work to train them to detect trinitrotoluene or TNT.
The problem can be solved by using genetic modification to bypass the need for this extensive training.

“The rats are very effective but mice have some advantages as mine detectors because they are cheaper to manage and house and easier to breed,” Researcher Charlotte D’Hulst  said.

In addition, it is relatively easy to manipulate the key cells in the mouse nose.
Researcher hope that the animals’ inbuilt sensitivity to TNT-like chemicals means they will not have to be trained. Instead, they will naturally home in on explosives.
Possibilities include planting a chip under their skin that will sense changes in their behaviour that indicate that they have spotted a mine.

“This is only for detection purposes. You’d still need the human handlers to take the mine out,” Dr D’Hulst, who describes the mice as bio-sensors, said.

“There are about 72 nations contaminated or affected by mines. The big problem with mines is that they are an enduring legacy of conflict, so after the wars have ended communities are still impeded from going back to their normal daily lives.
“Mine removal is a very expensive, very lengthy and hard business and there is a critical need for a TNT bio-sensor, “ D’Hulst said.

The findings were presented at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual conference in New Orleans.

(Published 16 October 2012, 16:12 IST)

Follow us on