If going through airport security has become a nightmare for you, what with avoiding those naked body scans and the alternative supposedly non-intrusive pat-downs, there’s news on the horizon. In the near future, instead of being subjected to the bare palm of a TSA agent or the radiation-rich beam of the scanner, you may be searched by mice.
That’s right: an Israeli company has developed a bomb-detecting machine literally run by mice.1 The machine looks like any ordinary airport scanner, but inside it has three big cartridges containing eight mice each. As people pause in a security screening area, air gets blown over them and into the cartridges where the mice reside. Mice, apparently, have a very keen olfactory sense that serves as a major part of their defense mechanisms. When they smell something “scary,” they run away. And so, the Israeli scientists trained mice to be afraid of smells typical of eight bomb components. If the people in the scanner reek of any of these substances, the mice flee to a side compartment where an alarm goes off. It takes several mice to trigger the alarm — one alone won’t do it– providing a good control over false positives.
“It’s as if they’re smelling a cat and escaping,” says company co-founder Eran Lumbroso. “We detect the escape.”
If you’re worried about the poor mice being trapped inside of an ugly machine, banish the thought. The mice lead very nice lives, working only four-hour shifts twice a day — a schedule many humans certainly would envy. Air gets pumped into the chambers at regular intervals. When they’re not working, the mice live in comfortable cages with free access to water and food. If they eventually form a union, they also should be able to enjoy the benefits of full medical and a 90 percent salary retirement.
The advantages of the method are obvious. First, no radiation to give you cancer (unless you don’t believe the government authorities). No body gropes. And no naked photos to entertain the TSA employees. It’s cheap, it’s fast, and it’s amazingly accurate. A recent test run in an Israeli mall put 1,000 people through the machine, 22 of whom were set up with fake explosives. The mice caught all 22 “villains,” with only one false positive, making the error rate less than .1 percent. Training the mice is fast, taking about two months, easy, and done entirely by computer, with no human intervention even needed.2 Unlike bomb-sniffing dogs, the mice require no petting, no belly rubs, and no midnight walks. And they have a much better nose, with 1,120 olfactory receptor genes compared to the dog’s measly 756. Humans have about 636, according to the latest estimates, with only half that many functional.3
The downside is that the mice only live about 18 months, which means constantly having to train replacements. Also, they stink (males especially) and need to have their cages cleaned often and well. No doubt the TSA employees would prefer looking at naked bodies than cleaning rodent poop. Plus, the mice can’t detect metal or other contraband — at least, not yet, and so can’t entirely replace other security screens. Then again, they could be trained to smell drug contraband, which would be a bonus.
The scientists haven’t stopped at the idea of mice being the best alternative, though. Other research is investigating the possibility of using plants to find bombs.4 Apparently, some plants change color when threatened, and so researchers are working on genetically modifying plants to create one that will change its color when exposed to bomb components. (Score one for the GMO folks, whose forays into creating edible plants aren’t necessarily seen as positive or health promoting!) Anyway, so far so good for the plant detectors, based on the fact that the National Science Foundation, the Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Office of Naval Research and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency all have chipped in millions to continue the research.
The bottom line is that something sure needs to be done to make air travel less unpleasant and hazardous before even reaching the unpleasant seats aboard the aircraft. I’ve written before about the controversy surrounding the safety of those full-body scanners. Some say they expose passengers to far too much radiation, and for frequent flyers, that effect is cumulative and worrisome. As I said in a previous blog, “Why risk any [radiation] exposure at all when the effectiveness of these scanners is highly questionable (in tests they miss many things such as guns and bomb components6) and good alternatives exist?” Now, the list of alternatives has become far more interesting.
At the least, it’s heartening to see scientists discover solutions in nature that are simple, cheap, and safe, and as it turns out, more effective than the potentially dangerous technological methods currently in use.
1 Weintraub, Arlene. “Sniffer Mice Have a Nose for Explosives.” 3 February 2011. New Scientist. 13 October 2011. < http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20927985.700-sniffer-mice-have-a-nose-for-explosives.html>
2 “CNN Newsroom: “Bomb-sniffing mice detect explosives.” 21 February 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PoaMLs_Ge4>
3 Cook, Brian et al. “Study of a Synthetic Human Olfactory Receptor 17-4: Expression and Purification from an Inducible Mammalian Cell Line.” 13 June 2008. PloS ONE. 13 October 2011. <http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0002920>
4 “Airport Security May Soon Use Plants and Mice to Detect Bombs.” 7 February 2011. Jetpacker. 13 October 2011. <http://thejetpacker.com/airport-security-may-soon-use-plants-and-mice-to-detect-bombs/>