Rats on patrol — rodents that detect landmines and tuberculosis
As a kid, Bart Weetjens was rather fond of his pet rats. Where other people saw mangy rodents, he saw potential. These oft-feared mammals can be more than just subway chasers and gourmet French chefs (Ratatouille, anyone?): in fact, rats can save lives.
Weetjens grew up to help establish APOPO, an NGO that employs African Giant Pouched Rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis. Using these rats is an affordable, inventive solution to blights that plague some of the world’s poorest countries.
Rats have more genetic material allocated to smell than any other mammal on earth. Weetjens trains them to scratch at a surface when they discover a particular smell, such as explosive materials or TB-positive sputum samples. Turns out, they’re much more effective than standard detection technologies. In standard landmine detection, four people with metal detectors can clear about 200 square meters of land every day. A rat with one trainer can clear the same amount of land in only half an hour.
They’re impressively good at screening for tuberculosis as well. A lab technician can correctly identify about 50 percent of TB-positive samples with a microscope, but adding a rat to that process bumps up the rate to 67 percent or more. Plus, they’ll work for peanuts and stay focused for hours at a time.
See how Weetjens came up with this innovation, and see his rats in action in his talk from TEDxBratislava below: