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Detecting land mines with GMO plants

04/23/04 12:00AM By Charlie Nardozzi
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(Host) Removing old land mines is dangerous business, but commentator Charlie Nardozzi says that an innovative use of genetically modified plants may improve the odds.

(Nardozzi) Genetically modified or transgenic plants have come under a lot of criticism by researchers and in the popular press. A genetically modified plant contains a gene or genes that have been artificially inserted, instead of the plant acquiring them through pollination.

The inserted gene may come from another unrelated plant, or from a completely different species. For example, transgenic Bt corn, which produces its own insecticide, contains a gene from a bacterium.

Some fear these Frankenstein plants will wreak ecological disaster affecting wild plants, insects, and animals. There are reports of monarch butterfly larvae dying when feeding on milkweed plants grown near genetically modified corn. For these and other reasons, the European Union has banned the importation of U.S. transgenic crops.

While there are certainly many legitimate concerns about growing, eating, and using genetically modified plants, the technology does offer some possibilities that may save lives in ways never imagined.

One possible benefit caught my eye recently. A Danish company, Aresa Biodetection, has been breeding a selection of cress that may be used to help identify the location of land mines in the soil. Landmines leave a legacy of pain and destruction long after wars are finished in many countries. It's estimated that more than 100 million land mines in 45 countries kill or injure 26,000 people each year. Many countries, such as Cambodia and Angola, have vast areas that are unusable due to the presence of mines. Most detection methods are very risky (prodding the soil or using dogs to find mines), expensive (using mine plows or metal detectors), and time consuming. Aresa Biodetection thinks the cress plant can provide a low cost, safe way to locate the mines.

Here's how it works. The green leaves of the mouse-ear cress naturally turn red in autumn, or if stressed. Aresa Biodetection has created a genetically modified strain of the plant that only turns red in the presence of certain soil chemicals, such as nitrogen dioxide. Nitrogen dioxide is present when explosives in landmines degrade in the soil. In a field sown from air with cress plants, the mines would be evident from the red patches of cress. Once located, they can be more quickly deactivated.

Aresa claims cress is also a good candidate because it grows naturally in many regions of the world, has a fast growth rate, germinates quickly from seed, and grows under a wide range of conditions. Since its complete genetic code is known, it can be specifically bred so it doesn't escape into the local environment. Male sterility can be introduced into the plant to reduce the risk of pollen spreading. The resulting plants either don't produce seed or produce sterile seed.

If proven safe and effective, these cress plants may become another tool in the arsenal to clear land of these deadly hazards.

This is Charlie Nardozzi in Shelburne.

Charlie Nardozzi is an all-around gardening expert with a special fondness for tomatoes and roses.
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