a cambodian boy victim of a land mineScientists in South Africa are testing a genetically engineered tobacco plant which detects the presence of nitrogen-dioxide, a marker for landmines, to turn red, in the hope that it may eventually be used to clear mine fields in post-conflict zones around the globe.

The team is part of a joint initiative of University of Stellenbosch and the Danish biotechnology firm, Aresa, which has developed the “RedDetect” bio-sensor technology in a weed called Thales Cress.

The weed changes color from green to autumnal red when it detects nitrogen dioxide leaching from mines buried in the soil.

Because the weed is too small to be seen from a safe distance, the scientists went looking for a more viable alternative, and landed on the tobacco plant, which grows easily in most parts of the world, with a little help from genetic engineering.

Stellenbosch researcher, Estelle Kempen, who is involved with the project says if the genetically engineered tobacco plants prove successful, they would provide an easy way to assess an entire field allowing the safe clearance of land mines and other unexploded ordnance devices on agricultural land.

Many countries around the world, including Angola, Burundi and Somalia in Africa; Afghanistan, Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia (where organizations as Clear Path International are working), Iraq, Nepal and Sri Lanka in Asia; Chechnya and Bosnia- Herzegovina in Europe and Colombia in Latin America, are worst affected by the problem of land mines.

A land mine is an explosive device designed to be placed on or in the ground to explode when triggered by an operator or the proximity of a vehicle, person, or animal.

Currently, land mines are cleared by explosives experts who put a stick in the ground to locate them, or they use remote devices or sniffer dogs, which are all costly and dangerous processes that typically involve a random check of just a fraction of the area .

Field trials for the genetically engineered tobacco varieties are already under way in Serbia, and now the scientists want to assess how the genetically engineered tobacco responds to drought and extreme temperatures, according to the researchers.

But at this research stage, to safeguard against any possible environmental effects of the genetically modified plants, they would be analyzed and destroyed before they began flowering to minimize the risk of environmental contamination.

Tobacco plants usually only produce red plant pigments in their flowers, which arises from a natural compound called anthocyanin, found in fruit such as apples and tomatoes. The technology developed by Aresa activates anthocyanin in the tobacco plant’s leaves if there is soil contamination from explosives such as land mines.

Image credit: CPI at Flickr under a Creative Commons license