Mouse and Supermouse

Those who scoffed at the notion of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police training unmounted sniffer-mice to detect cheese-smuggling will be interested in the following story from last week’s Guardian newspaper.

“Scientists have genetically modified mice to enable them to sniff out landmines. They hope the GM mouse, known as MouSensor, could one day become a useful tool to help deal with the dangerous legacies of past wars.”

Presumably the mice are particularly light-footed. Scientists have yet to test the impact of an overweight mouse on a landmine, although the RSPCA might have something to say about it.

“One approach to clearing landmines is to use HeroRats, giant pouched rats that are trained to sniff out landmines by the Belgian NGO, Apopo.”

Forget ToyStory. These action-rats are trained to save lives. They detect tuberculosis in patients in hospitals and find landmines in the 66 countries and 7 territories around the world affected by the explosive remnants of war and civil conflict.

“Two HeroRats, with a human handler, can clear an area of 300 sq metres in less than two hours. It would take two people about two days to do the same. One disadvantage of the HeroRats system, however, is that the rats need nine months’ training before they are ready for landmine detection.”

The newspaper is strangely silent on the casualty rate among HeroRats, although rumour has it that the Ministry of Defence has recently cancelled an order for mouse-traps.

Back to the genetically modified mice. Scientists recently found a receptor among the collection of neurons in the nose that specifically recognises a chemical called DNT – a less explosive, but similar-smelling, version of TNT. Richard Dawkins says that this gave mice an evolutionary advantage in preventing them from being blown to pieces during Paleocene times.

Scientists have modified the mouse’s genes to give it a much larger proportion of DNT receptors in its nose compared with that of a normal mouse. This proto-landmine-sniffer was used to breed and doubtless had more fun and a longer life than many of its progeny will.

According to the news story, the MouSensors have not yet been tested in the field and scientists have yet to work out a landmine-clearing protocol. It’s not clear if the mice will be kitted out in bomb-proof suits, but presumably the Geneva Convention will have to be modified.

Many plaudits and awards have gone to a novel, play and a film about war horses. We can now look forward to a new film about sniffer-mice – probably with the usual disclaimer: No mice were harmed in the making of…

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