Bee venom used to create ultra-sensitive explosives sensor


May 11, 2011

A new sensor system incorporating protein found in bee venom can detect explosives down to the level of a single molecule (Photo: Waugsberg)

A new sensor system incorporating protein found in bee venom can detect explosives down to the level of a single molecule (Photo: Waugsberg)

Not only do bees play a vital role in agriculture by pollinating plants, but it now turns out that they may help keep us from getting blown up. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have shown that bombolitins, which are protein fragments found in bee venom, can be used to detect single molecules of nitro-aromatic explosives such as TNT. If used in sensors at locations such as airports, those sensors would be much more sensitive than those currently in use.

The MIT team started by coating the insides of carbon nanotubes with bombolitins. Then, they exposed those nanotubes to air drawn from the vicinity of various explosives. While carbon nanotubes naturally fluoresce, the wavelength of that fluoresced light changes when molecules of nitro-aromatic compounds bind with the bee-venom proteins. Although not visible to the naked eye, this shift in wavelength can be detected by a special microscope – which is what happened in the lab tests.

In the past, MIT has developed similar sensors in which the fluorescent light increased in intensity when explosives were present. Such technology is said to be more error-prone than observing changes in that light's wavelength, however, because readings of intensity can be influenced by ambient light.

By combining different types of carbon nanotubes with different bombolitins, the team have even been able to identify different varieties of explosives. The system can also detect molecules that are created when explosives such as TNT begin to decompose.

Currently, commercial explosives sensors analyze airborne charged particles using spectrometry. While inexpensive and durable, such sensors cannot detect explosives down to the single molecule level. Not only is the bee-venom system capable of doing so, but it works at room temperature and atmospheric pressure.

The technology is being patented, with commercial and military parties already showing interest.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth
1 Comment

Last I checked, bees don\'t voluntarily give up their stinger fact, unless you want to milk a bee, if it stings you it dies. So now we not only have dying hive syndrome to kill the bees, TSA is going to start killing them for their sucks to be a bee!

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