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Bee Venom Used to Detect Explosives

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With about one-third of the human diet dependent on insect-pollinated plants, bees play a crucial role in keeping us nourished and healthy. Turns out their salubrious little stingers can also protect us from bomb-wielding terrorists.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have revealed that protein fragments in bee venom, aptly called bombolitins, can be used to detect single molecules of nitro-aromatic explosives, such as TNT. If applied to security sensors at such human hives like airports, the bombolitins will increase the sensitivity of the sensors, making them much more effective.

First, the MIT team coated the insides of carbon nanotubes with bombolitins, then exposed the nanotubes to air samples taken from the vicinity of various explosives. While carbon nanotubes naturally fluoresce, the bombolitins created quite a buzz at the molecular level.

The team discovered that the wavelength of that fluoresced light changed when molecules of nitro-aromatic compounds bonded with the bee-venom proteins. The shift in wavelength is not visible to the naked eyed, but can be detected by a special microscope.

In the past, MIT has designed similar sensors where fluorescent light increases when in the presence of explosives. However, such technology is said to be more prone to errors because the readings can be influenced by ambient light. Observing changes in the light’s wavelength offers a more precise detection.

The team was even able to identify different varieties of explosives by combining various types of carbon nanotubes with different bombolitins. The bee venom also helped detect molecules of decomposing TNT.

Commercial explosive sensors currently used in airports analyze charged particles in the air. However, such sensors cannot detect explosives at the molecular level.

Commercial and military parties are already showing interest. The technology is currently being patented.

Via Discovery


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