Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Scientists recruit wasps for war on terror

USA Today/Mimi Hall | December 28 2005

Scientists at a Georgia laboratory have developed what could be a low-tech, low-cost weapon in the war on terrorism: trained wasps.

The tiny, non-stinging wasps can check for hidden explosives at airports and monitor for toxins in subway tunnels.

"You can rear them by the thousands, and you can train them within a matter of minutes," says Joe Lewis, a U.S. Agriculture Department entomologist. "This is just the very tip of the iceberg of a very new resource."

Lewis and others at the University of Georgia-Tifton Campus developed a handheld "Wasp Hound" to contain the wasps while they sniff out chemicals and other substances.

Lewis and his partner, University of Georgia biological engineer Glen Rains, say their device is ready for pilot tests and could be available for commercial use in five to 10 years.

Rains says the wasps could one day be used instead of dogs to check for explosives in cargo containers coming in to the nation's seaports, in vehicles crossing at border checkpoints, at airports and anywhere else where security should be tight.

"It's real easy to learn how to work with them," he says about the wasps. "You could show somebody what to do in 30 to 40 minutes. And they're very specific in what they learn."

This new method comes as the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on high-tech equipment and training since 9/11 to secure the nation from another terrorist attack.

Bomb-sniffing dogs cost thousands of dollars and take months to train. High-tech equipment can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit and often has spotty performance.

"We don't have portable, flexible systems," Lewis says.

Scientists started working with the species, a type of parasitic wasp called Microplitis croceipes, decades ago — long before the terrorist attacks in 2001.

In the 1990s, the Defense Department paid for part of that work to find out whether wasps could be used for a variety of defense purposes, including sniffing out land mines. They couldn't do that well because the areas they would have to check are too vast.

The scientists — funded by the Agriculture Department and the University of Georgia — have looked at other uses for the wasps.

Rains says the wasps can be trained to detect fungal diseases on crops while the damage is still below ground and can't be seen.

This method would help farmers avoid having to spread toxic fungicide over an entire crop after the disease spreads. Rains says farmers would save money, and consumers and the environment would benefit as well.

The wasps may also be trained for medical uses, including detecting cancer or ulcers by smelling someone's breath.

They probably can be trained like dogs to find bodies buried in rubble, Rains says.

Given the strong government effort since 9/11 to focus on the nation's security, the scientists see a vast market for the wasps to detect explosives.

The wasps are trained with sugar water by using the classical conditioning techniques made famous by Pavlov's dogs. Rains says the wasps are sensitive to a host of chemical odors, including 2,4-DNT, a volatile compound used in dynamite.

To do their work, five wasps — each a half-inch long — are placed in a plastic cylinder that is 15 inches tall. This "Wasp Hound," which costs roughly $100 per unit, has a vent in one end and a camera that connects to a laptop computer.

When the wasps pick up an odor they've been trained to detect they gather by the vent — a response that can be measured by the computer or actually seen by observers.

Lewis says the wasps, when exposed to some chemicals, "can detect as low as four parts per billion, which is an incredibly small amount."

He says the "ability to capture nature and its marvels is ... revolutionary."

Rains says, "The sensitivity of animals (and insects) to chemicals in general is probably beyond what we can comprehend. We don't really know what the limits are."


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