Locusts turned into cyborg sappers

American researchers at the University of Washington in St. Louis have developed a method to turn locusts into cyborg sappers. Research is commissioned by the US Navy Research Department. A preprint of the work of scientists is published on bioRxiv, and a brief summary of it is given by New Scientist.

American locust with implanted electrodes and a signal amplification and data recording device
Baranidharan Raman / Washington University in St. Louis

Today, various methods are used to detect explosives, including chemical analysis of airborne substances and the search for mines using African hamster rats. In addition, an explosive detection system is being developed using modified bacteria.

Researchers at the University of Washington in St. Louis found that depending on the chemical that has reached the receptors in the locust antennae, different neurons are excited in the olfactory lobes of the mushroom bodies in the insect brain. And by the excitation of neurons, it is possible to determine whether insect receptors have caught explosive molecules.

For the experiment, the researchers used the Schistocerca americana, also known as the American locust. Researchers implanted electrodes into the olfactory parts of the brain of insects, with which they obtained data on neural activity that occurs in response to odors.

On the backs of insects, scientists have secured a miniature device with an amplifier signal from the electrodes. This device recorded data on the electrical activity of neurons in the olfactory brain regions of American locusts.

Then the insect antennae were exposed to various substances, including pairs of trinitrotoluene and its precursor 2,4-dinitrotoluene, as well as benzaldehyde. In addition, the antennae were also affected by hot air. Thanks to this, scientists determined which neurons of the olfactory lobe of the locust brain respond to each of the substances.

The accuracy of the detection of molecules of a specific explosive in the air with a single insect averaged 60 percent. When analyzing the signals from seven individuals, the detection accuracy was already about 80 percent.

The new method is still at an early stage of development and has several drawbacks. In particular, after implantation of the electrodes, the locust loses its ability to move. For this reason, insects during the experiment were moved around the room where this or that substance was sprayed on a cart.

In addition, the locust brain died on average within seven hours after implantation of the electrodes. However, up to this point, olfactory neurons have steadily responded to receptor signals. Finally, it is not yet known how reliable the method developed by American scientists is. During the experiments, insects were not exposed to vapors of several substances simultaneously.

In 2005, scientists from the University of Georgia proposed using wasps and bees to search for explosives. Researchers have created a special device that contained five insects, "trained" to look for a special fungus that affects peanuts. If the wasp smelled such a fungus, the device gave a light signal. The response of the wasps to odor was monitored using a miniature camera inside the device.

Later, scientists from the Los Alamos Laboratory conducted experiments on training bees in order to subsequently use trained insects to detect explosives. Insect training took little time. During training, the bees were placed in a container in which there was a small amount of explosive.

In the container, the bees were given a small portion of the sugar solution. After a short time, usually no more than 10 minutes, the insects developed a reflex - when they smell a certain smell, the bees began to move their antennae more actively, waiting for an encouraging treat. The project with the training of bees and wasps is currently closed.

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