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6 Unusual Members of Mother Nature's Bomb Squad

Police, military, and security personnel have used dogs for years to locate explosives. In the last decade, homeland security and Middle East battlefronts have created an overwhelming demand for these four-legged finders that cannot always be met. Luckily, Mother Nature offers us a few other ways to detect things that go boom.

1. Bees

Bomb-sniffing dogs are great at their jobs, but they come with some drawbacks. It can take months to train a dog and his human handler, and keeping their skills sharp requires constant practice. Bomb dogs are also expensive, when you consider the costs of training, food, shelter, veterinary bills, and the salary of a dedicated handler. A UK company, Inscentinel, believes they have a cheaper, faster, but just as effective alternative: bees.

To train “sniffer bees," Inscentinel feeds the insects sugar water while exposing them to the smell of dynamite. After that, any time the bees detect dynamite, even in concentrations as small as a few parts-per-trillion, they'll extend their tongue-like proboscises, searching for a sugary treat. The training takes less than 10 minutes, but lasts for the bee's entire six-week lifespan. Although that is quite a bit shorter than the 10-year career of the average bomb dog, with these methods, Inscentinel can train about 500 bees a day, so there are always new sniffers ready to go.

Once the bees are trained, a few dozen are placed inside Inscentinel's handheld device, the Vasor136. Each bee is kept in place with a special bracket, and then monitored with an infrared sensor. If the sensors are set off by extended proboscises, an LCD screen alerts the human operator. Much like their six-legged partners, it only takes a few minutes to train a person to use the Vasor136.

With a quick training time, inexpensive food supply, and relatively cheap maintenance cost for a hive, bees can be a great alternative to bomb dogs. Best of all, in addition to bombs, bees can also be trained just as easily and quickly to sniff out illegal drugs or even some contagious diseases. And you thought they were only good for making honey.

2. Rats

Thanks to that whole Bubonic Plague thing, rats have gotten a pretty bad rap. But Bart Weetjens and his organization APOPO want to change all that with HeroRATS, a program that uses rats to safely and effectively clear minefields.

In case you're wondering, no, they don't just let the rats run across the minefield and see what happens. It typically requires at least 5kg/11lbs of weight to set off a mine, so even the African giant pouched rats used by APOPO, which weigh about 1.5kb/3.3lbs, can run through a minefield unharmed. To clear an area, the rats are accompanied by two human handlers who stand on either side of the danger zone with a wire running between them. The rat is tethered to the wire using a specially-designed harness, and the rodent runs back and forth across the area. If he stops to dig, it means he's detected the scent of dynamite. The mine is marked by a handler and the rat gets a piece of banana as a reward. With this technique, the team can clear a 300-square meter section of land in an hour. In comparison, two people using metal detectors would need two full days to cover the same area. Not only are the rats faster, but they can detect plastic-encased explosives that the metal detectors would miss.

Training HeroRATS takes about nine months at a cost of 6,000€/$7,400. But after that initial investment, they require very little medical care, are inexpensive to feed and shelter, and will live for up to eight years. In addition, they don't typically form tight bonds with specific handlers, a common occurrence with bomb dogs. This means that rats can easily work with any handler and still perform at a high level of accuracy.

Currently, APOPO operates in Mozambique and Thailand, with their headquarters and training facilities located in Tanzania. In addition to clearing minefields, the rats have also been used to detect tuberculosis, increasing the TB detection rates by 43% in partner hospitals. They’re also trying to train rats to enter debris left after an earthquake or other disaster to search for buried survivors.

The idea is catching on in America, too. Just a few weeks ago, the U.S. Army announced that it's working on a new program using bomb-detecting rats, called the Rugged Automated Training System (R.A.T.S.). Although they have no intention of replacing the military’s bomb-sniffing dogs, they’re looking at rats as a potential supplement animal to make bomb detection faster, cheaper, and more easily deployable to more units in the field.

3. Mice

An Israeli company, BioExplorers, is developing ways to train mice for use in public spaces like airport security gates, sports arenas, and even at drive-through toll booths to sniff out drugs or explosives. Similar to the handheld device from Inscentinel, the mice are housed inside an enclosure where they are monitored for signs of reaction to various scents. As a person walks past the enclosure, say just after they pass through the airport metal detector, the mice can get a whiff. If they react, the device beeps and red lights flash to warn a human operator. Training for one type of scent only takes about 10 days, with additional scents requiring a few additional days. But the mice can remember dozens of different scents, so they could become all-encompassing screeners in many different scenarios.

4 & 5. Dolphins and Sea Lions


Photo via the Official U.S. Navy Imagery Flickr account

Since the 1960s, the U.S. Navy has been training bottlenose dolphins and sea lions to detect and mark underwater mines. With the dolphins' underwater sonar capabilities, it’s been said they can detect the difference between a natural soybean and a man-made BB at a distance of up to 50 feet. When you consider that man-made sonar can’t differentiate between a rock and a mine, it’s pretty clear why dolphins are so useful in this capacity. Sea lions, on the other hand, use their excellent sense of sight – five times more powerful than man’s - to locate underwater mines. Once an explosive has been found, the animals point human handlers to the location by dropping an acoustic transponder or releasing a floating marker.

In addition to mines, the Navy’s dolphins and sea lions can also easily locate divers in places they shouldn’t be – say on the underside of a ship in a harbor. When an unauthorized swimmer is found, dolphins bump into the diver’s air tank and attach a strobe light connected to a buoy that floats to the surface so that sailors can apprehend the suspect. Similarly, sea lions clamp a special cuff around the diver’s leg. But instead of a strobe light, the cuff is attached to a line that runs back to a Navy ship, where the sailors aboard simply reel in the diver like the catch of the day.

Although the program has been around for decades, it wasn’t until the 1990s that it became declassified. Since then, the Navy’s dolphins have mainly worked and trained in the waters around their home port of San Diego. However, they have been deployed to patrol for unauthorized swimmers in Puget Sound in 2010, and in the Persian Gulf in 2003, where they helped clear more than 100 mines during the invasion of Iraq. Most recently, they have been considered for a mission in the Strait of Hormuz after repeated threats by Iran to block the Persian Gulf’s only sea passage.

6. Plants


Photo via the Colorado State University Department of Public Relations

With assistance from Professor June Medford of Colorado State University, future bomb sniffers might not even have noses. Medford and her team in the Biology Department have genetically modified plants’ natural receptors to air and soil pollutants to detect explosives and other dangerous chemicals. If these bomb-sniffing plants absorb TNT from the air, an internal switch is flipped and they change color from green to white. Once the TNT has been removed, the plants return to their natural color.

Bomb-sniffing plants could easily become an early warning device for everything ranging from explosives to chemical and biological weapons or even environmental pollutants. The plan is to eventually have certain types of plants set up to detect certain types of dangers. For example, if the hydrangeas planted outside the airport are white, but the roses are still red, you know you have a bomb in the area, but not anthrax. Medford is working to make the gene “plug-and-play”, meaning this new gene sequence could be used on virtually any type of plant, like trees. This would make it possible to use an airplane or satellite to monitor the leaves in a neighborhood to determine the breadth of an area affected by a pollutant.

As of right now, the color change takes place over a couple of hours. While that’s still a great early warning window, Medford hopes to speed that up to only a few minutes in the future.

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Women Suffer Worse Migraines Than Men. Now Scientists Think They Know Why
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Migraines are one of medicine's most frustrating mysteries, both causes and treatments. Now researchers believe they've solved one part of the puzzle: a protein affected by fluctuating estrogen levels may explain why more women suffer from migraines than men.

Migraines are the third most common illness in the world, affecting more than 1 in 10 people. Some 75 percent of sufferers are women, who also experience them more frequently and more intensely, and don't respond as well to drug treatments as men do.

At this year's Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, researcher Emily Galloway presented new findings on the connection between the protein NHE1 and the development of migraine headaches. NHE1 regulates the transfer of protons and sodium ions across cell membranes, including the membranes that separate incoming blood flow from the brain.

When NHE1 levels are low or the molecule isn't working as it's supposed to, migraine-level head pain can ensue. And because irregular NHE1 disrupts the flow of protons and sodium ions to the brain, medications like pain killers have trouble crossing the blood-brain barrier as well. This may explain why the condition is so hard to treat.

When the researchers analyzed NHE1 levels in the brains of male and female lab rats, the researchers found them to be four times higher in the males than in the females. Additionally, when estrogen levels were highest in the female specimens, NHE1 levels in the blood vessels of their brains were at their lowest.

Previous research had implicated fluctuating estrogen levels in migraines, but the mechanism behind it has remained elusive. The new finding could change the way migraines are studied and treated in the future, which is especially important considering that most migraine studies have focused on male animal subjects.

"Conducting research on the molecular mechanisms behind migraine is the first step in creating more targeted drugs to treat this condition, for men and women," Galloway said in a press statement. "Knowledge gained from this work could lead to relief for millions of those who suffer from migraines and identify individuals who may have better responses to specific therapies."

The new research is part of a broader effort to build a molecular map of the relationship between sex hormones and NHE1 expression. The next step is testing drugs that regulate these hormones to see how they affect NHE1 levels in the brain.

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History
A Founder of Earth Day Looks Back on How It Began
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Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated

On the very first Earth Day in 1970, Denis Hayes stood on a stage in Central Park, stunned by the number of people who'd come to honor the planet. Now in his 70s, Hayes remembers it was like looking at the ocean—“you couldn’t see where the sea of people ended.” Crowd estimates reached more than a million people.

For Hayes, who is now board chair of the international Earth Day Network, it was the culmination of a year’s worth of work. As an urban ecology graduate student at Harvard University, he’d volunteered to help organize a small initiative by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. Nelson was horrified by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, and wanted to raise awareness about environmental issues by holding teaching events similar to those being held by civil rights and anti-war activists.

Senator Nelson saw a growing disconnect between the concept of progress and the idea of American well-being, Hayes tells Mental Floss. “There was a sense that America was prosperous and getting better, but at the same time, the air in the country was similar to the air today in China, Mexico City, or New Delhi," Hayes says. "Rivers were catching on fire. Lakes were unswimmable.”

Nelson's plan for these environmental teach-ins was for speakers to educate college students about environmental issues. But he had no one to organize them. So Hayes, Nelson’s sole volunteer, took control on a national level, organizing teach-ins at Harvard first and then across the U.S. Initially, the response was tepid at best. “Rather rapidly it became clear that this wasn’t a hot issue at colleges and universities in 1969,” Hayes says. “We had a war raging, and civil rights were getting very emotional after the Nixon election.”

Still, both Hayes and Nelson noticed an influx of mail to the senator's office from women with young families worried about the environment. So instead of focusing on colleges, the two decided to take a different tactic, creating events with community-based organizations across the country, Hayes says. They also decided that rather than a series of teach-ins, they'd hold a single, nationwide teach-in on the same day. They called it Earth Day, and set a date: April 22.

Hayes now had a team of young adults working for the cause, and he himself had dropped out of school to tackle it full time. Long before social media, the project began to spread virally. “It just resonated,” he says. Women and smaller environmental-advocacy groups really hooked onto the idea, and word spread by mouth and by information passing between members of the groups.

Courtesy of Denis Hayes

With the cooperation and participation of grassroots groups and volunteers across the country, and a few lawmakers who supported the initiative, Hayes’ efforts culminated in the event on April 22, 1970.

Hayes started the day in Washington, D.C., where he and the staff were based. There was a rally and protest on the National Mall, though by that point Hayes had flown to New York, where Mayor John Lindsay provided a stage in Central Park. Parts of Fifth Avenue were shut down for the events, which included Earth-oriented celebrations, protests, and speeches by celebrities. Some of those attending the event even attacked nearby cars for causing pollution. After the rally, Hayes flew to Chicago for a smaller event.

“We had a sense that it was going to be big, but when the day actually dawned, the crowds were so much bigger than anyone had experienced before,” Hayes said. The event drew grassroots activists working on a variety of issues—Agent Orange, lead paint in poor urban neighborhoods, saving the whales—and fostered a sense of unity among them.

“There were people worrying about these [environmental] issues before Earth Day, but they didn’t think they had anything in common with one another," Hayes says. "We took all those individual strands and wove them together into the fabric of modern environmentalism.”

Hayes and his team spent the summer getting tear-gassed at protests against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Nixon authorized just six days after Earth Day. But by fall, the team refocused on environmental issues—and elections. They targeted a “dirty dozen” members of Congress up for re-election who had terrible environmental records, and campaigned for candidates who championed environmental causes to run against them. They defeated seven out of 12.

“It was a very poorly funded but high-energy campaign,” Hayes says. “That sent the message to Congress that it wasn’t just a bunch of people out frolicking in the sunshine planting daisies and picking up litter. This actually had political chops.”

The early '70s became a golden age for environmental issues; momentum from the Earth Day movement spawned the creation of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Environmental Education Act (which was initially passed in 1970 and revived in 1990), and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We completely changed the framework within which America does business, more than any other period in history with the possible exception of the New Deal,” Hayes says. “But our little revolution was brought entirely from the grassroots up.”

In 1990, Hayes was at it again. He organized the first international Earth Day, with about 200 million participants across more than 140 countries. Since then it’s become a global phenomenon.

Despite its popularity, though, we still have a long way to go, even if the improvements Hayes fought for have made these issues feel more remote. Hayes noted that everything they were fighting in the '70s was something tangible—something you could see, taste, smell, or touch. Climate change can seem much less real—and harder to combat—to the average person who isn’t yet faced with its effects.

Hayes also notes that people have become more skeptical of science. “Historically, that has not been a problem in the United States. But today science is under attack.”

He warns, “This [anti-science sentiment] is something that could impoverish the next 50 generations and create really long-term devastation—that harms not only American health, but also American business, American labor, and American prospects.”

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