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Biosensor Developed to Detect Explosives, Land Mines

Land mine detection team, Tajikistan 2014

Land mine detection team, in Tajikistan, 2014. (U.N. Development Programme, Flickr.

19 Sept. 2023. Researchers from a university biochemistry lab and company developing synthetic enzymes designed techniques using engineered bacteria to detect buried land mines at longer distances. A team from Enzymit in Ness-Ziona, Israel and Hebrew University of Jerusalem describe their process in the 22 Aug. 2023 issue of the journal Computational and Structural Biotechnology Journal.

Land mines with buried unexploded artillery and bombs are a continuing threat to the lives of people in former war zones, even decades after the end of hostilities. Land mines are placed underground, designed to explode by the presence or proximity of humans, whether combatants or civilians. Similar buried weapons are designed when triggered to project shrapnel fragments through the air causing multiple deep wounds across a wider area. According to the latest Landmine Monitor report published in Nov. 2022 by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, these weapons continue to kill and maim civilians, as well as disrupt lives and essential services in more than 60 countries, with more than 5,500 killed or injured in 2021, mostly civilians.

Moreover, detecting and clearing land mines today is dangerous and laborious work. Highly trained workers are needed to carefully explore suspected mine fields, often with handheld detection devices. Because combatants do not always document land mine placement, large areas often need to be examined, making it a slow and inefficient process.

Chemicals indicating the presence of explosives

The Environmental Microbiology and Biosensor Laboratory at Hebrew University led by microbiologist Shimshon Belkin studies biological sensors that harness living cells, modified genetically to express proteins that sense and report the presence of target substances. Among the lab’s work is detection of harmful or toxic biological and chemical molecules, but also sensing of specific chemicals indicating the presence of explosives, such as 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene and 2,4-dinitrotoluene, better known as TNT and DNT respectively.

Enzymit is a three year-old enterprise founded by computational biologists Gideon Lapidoth and Dror Baran — now CEO and chief operating officer respectively — who studied protein design at Weizmann Institute of Science, a research university in Israel. The company offers a process for designing synthetic enzymes with specified chemical and biological properties mainly for industrial and commercial use, from deep learning algorithms. Additional algorithms, says Enzymit, adapt and refine the chemistry to enable high-speed assembly of enzymes for subsequent testing and production. Data produced from this development process, adds Enzymit, are used to further train the company’s algorithms. The company says its cell-free design process is simpler and less expensive than conventional synthetic biology techniques based on fermentation.

The research team led by Belkin adapted work by Enzymit to extend its biological sensing process based on E. coli bacteria to detect trace amounts of DNT, an indicator of land mines and unexploded ordinance. Based on genetic screening and computational analytics by Enzymit, the researchers identified alterations of a gene in the bacterium’s DNA to enable expression of a protein with greater sensitivity to DNT molecules by the microbe, and to generate more powerful bioluminescent signals when sensing this chemical. In lab assessments, including tests using beach sand, the altered E. coli sensors exhibit a detection threshold seven times lower than before, with 45 times the signal intensity, and 40 percent faster response time.

Enzymit says the findings can be the basis for more sensitive devices to detect chemicals in soil indicating land mines from a longer distance than current technologies, making the process safer for workers. “This project marks a breakthrough in the field of land mine detection,” says Lapidoth in a company statement released through Cision, “while demonstrating the incredible potential of harnessing the synergy between synthetic biology and A.I. for a future where humanitarian and environmental challenges can be met with safe and sustainable solutions.”

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