Enzymit from Ness-Ziona, which specializes in computerized design and construction of proteins, has developed, in collaboration with the research group of Prof. Shimshon Belkin of the Institute of Life Sciences at the Hebrew University, a highly sensitive biological sensor capable of efficiently and accurately detecting mines buried in the ground.
Based on a unique protein sensitive to TNT (the explosive itself) developed using AI, Enzymit's mine detector is designed both to detect mines on the battlefield and to assist humanitarian efforts to more efficiently and safely clear minefields left behind after the war.
Detonation of mines in the Golan Heights. Photo Archive: Ministry of Defense Spokesperson's Office
What does "biological sensor" mean? In fact, the development is based on research by Prof. Belkin, who searched for biological ways to detect explosives. Belkin engineered the common gut bacterium E. coli to contain a protein that binds to DNT, a molecule that is a byproduct of the explosive TNT.
When the same protein binds to a DNT molecule, a bioluminescence reaction is generated, i.e., faint light is emitted that can be absorbed by electro-optic means. In fact, TNT is a volatile substance and tiny residues from it are emitted from the ground where the mine lies - thus creating a "chemical signature" on the surface, which E. coli can identify.
Image of bacteria shining as a result of reaction with TNT, photo: Enzyme
Another image of bacteria shining at different intensities as a result of interaction with TNT, photo: Enzyme
That's where Enzymit came in, which uses AI and machine learning-based computational biology technologies to design and build proteins with applied properties. Led by Lidor David, a senior researcher at the company, Enzymite identified the mutations that need to be performed to create an improved protein that makes it possible to improve the system's sensitivity to TNT by seven times, increase the intensity of emitted light by 45 times and reduce reaction time by 40 percent.
Dr. Gideon Lapidot, CEO and co-founder of Enzymit, explained in a conversation with Israel Hayom about how the sensor works. "On the conceptual level, this is a very simple sensor: the TNT molecule is the input, the protein is the 'detector,' and the output is the light emitted in response to the reaction between the protein and the molecule. In its natural form, the bacterium was not effective enough. The changes we made to the protein make it possible to turn the discovery into a reliable sensor on a practical level," he says.
Researcher Lidor David in the company's laboratory. Photo: Enzymit
Thousands of victims a year, many of them children
The massive use of landmines on the battlefield began in World War II. A mine is a tactical explosive device designed to restrict enemy steps. However, even after the fighting ends, minefields become a real danger to civilians for generations as long as they are not cleared.
An estimated 110 million landmines are currently planted around the world, claiming the lives of about 5,000 people a year, almost half of them children. The most mine-strewn country is our neighbor Egypt, with 23 million mines planted mainly by the British during World War II and by the Egyptian army during the years of conflict with Israel.
Mine clearance from the Sea of Galilee. Archive, photo: Ministry of Defense Spokesperson's Office
Other countries whose soil is rife with mines are Angola, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, China, Cambodia, as well as Croatia and Bosnia in Europe. In Israel, the Mine Clearance Authority estimates that there are about 200,5 dunams of minefields, mainly on the southern and northern borders.
Clearing mines using existing methods is a cumbersome and dangerous task. In order to detect them, the area must be scanned, whether by means of saboteurs or robots, using metal detectors, which can sense the mine only in very close proximity. In light of this, according to statistics, each removal of 200,<> mines costs the life of one saboteur.
Mine clearance at the "Naama Bell" site. Archive, photo: Spokesperson and Information Division, Ministry of Defense
Enzymite's biological sensor makes the task infinitely safer and more efficient: the engineered bacteria are dispersed over a minefield or suspicious area, and after a few minutes the proteins kick in and detect TNT residues on the ground. Now, the sprayed area can be scanned from a safe distance with an electro-optical camera – and get an accurate "heat map" of where each mine is.
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