In the same vein of vermin experimentally saving human lives (see “Remote Controlled Cockroaches”), a team of geneticists out of Hunter College, New York, have manipulated the DNA of regular field mice to allow them to literally “sniff out” buried land mines.
The GM rodent strain, dubbed MouSensor, has had the series of genes that govern the olfactory bulb (the smell centre of the brain) altered. It now has up to 250 times more neurons dedicated to detecting the smell of DNT — an explosive closely related to the TNT found in the majority of land mines.
The MouSensor hasn’t yet exited the lab for field tests, mostly because researchers are still debating how a mouse could signal a found land mine. One promising theory holds that the overwhelming exposure to DNT could cause a small seizure, which could be read remotely by an implant:
”We are thinking along the lines of implanting a chip under the skin of these animals that would wirelessly report back to a computer when the animal’s behaviour is changing upon being triggered by a TNT landmine,” said [team leader Charlotte] D’Hulst. […] The mouse itself would be safe from the landmine, since it would be too small to trigger an explosion.” [The Guardian]
The super-mouse will join the arsenal of traditional methods which include human agents, machines built for remote detonation, and other biosensors like dogs and rats. It is a major boost to its fellow bio-sensors in particular: The mice are far smaller and more dextrous than dogs, and, since their detection skills are built into their DNA, they don’t require the nine-month training period rats do.
Soon, mice may also be modified to detect other scents, like that of tuberculosis compounds on the breath of sufferers. As if they weren’t overachieving enough!