January 27, 2004

Let the Mine Detectors Bloom!

Yahoo! News - Flower-Power Could Help Clear Land mines

A very nice biotech application, a plant that changes color in the presence of nitrogen dioxide, marking where mines are buried in the soil. The plant, the beloved Arabidopsis thaliana, has been modified by Aresa Biodetection. Since the plant can be made male sterile or reproduction limited to in the presence of a growth hormone concerns about spreading can be ameliorated. But is that the right solution? Maybe we should allow it to spread wildly instead.

The careful approach of first clearing the land, then sowing the plant, waiting, and then removing the mines and planting something else, might work where the mine density is fairly high and doing this kind of clearing has few other effects. But in many places clearing the land would cause severe erosion, and if the mine density is low it would be a very expensive way of finding them (although likely better than plenty of other high-tech solutions, and of course safer than having people poke with sticks). The method is not presented as a panacea, and it isn't.

But what if modified Arabidopsis (that is also clearly visible as modified, e.g. by leaf shape) is simply spread and allowed to grow freely? That would be an extremely cost effective way of finding out the presence of those truly unexpected mines and marking them.

The ecological risk of the change appears low. Most likely the normal strain has an advantage over the modified strain since it adapts to stress by changing color (an evolved response that presumably is an advantage) while the modified strain won't do it except near mines. And if other species were to pick up the mine detecting effect, it would actually extend the benefit. Anthocyanins are even antioxidants , so it might be a good thing if they get into food :-)

Of course, the political climate in the West is likely mostly against this. But if the choice is between a potential, vague and likely very small ecological risk and the real and serious effect of land mines, the only thing the precautionary principle tells us is to add safeguards to the modified plant, not to avoid spreading it (making the plant extra sensitive to herbicides might be prudent). Hypothetical risks can not trump real risks. Even if the plant got out of hand and spread wildly it would be very unlikely that it caused more damage than 26,000 killed or injured people per year, the cruel cost of mines. Those holding the bioconservative view that nature should not be tampered with under any circumstance, they need to explain how the tampering done by slowly decaying landmines (not to mention their human cost) is less than the change in coloration behavior of a plant. Again, are these spiritual or aesthetic costs greater than very real deaths and dismemberments?

There are many more likely practical showstoppers - can the seeds be produced cheaply, will the plant thrive in affected areas, can people reliably use it to find mines and so on. And in many situations other methods are still superior. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if mine-detecting plants will never be used, yet another charming idea left on the drawing board (or rather, in the seed bank). But I think we should carefully consider one day releasing this kind of safeguard plants deliberately into the environment. If our environment could clearly signal pollution or danger it would be far easier to protect - and it would protect us better too.

Posted by Anders at January 27, 2004 10:23 PM

There is an old movie, based on a true story called "The Killing Fields". It tells of how one of the protagonists struggles against the regime in Cambodia. In one scene, he escaped a second time sucessfully, saving and taking a little child with him. Just when there light loomed at the end of the ordeal, the child stepped on a landmine...

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