We come across some wild scientific reports in looking for stories to bring to you in this column, and this is one of them. This one belongs in the “Believe it or Not” file. A new report says researchers are developing explosive-sniffing cyborg locusts.

In today’s world with terrorism all over the globe, we need innovative tools to detect explosive devices before they can injure people. With this new work, maybe the locusts are on our side — it sounds sort of biblical, doesn’t it?

We have many types of explosives. They all can cause damage, but they’re chemically different. Among these are ammonium nitrate, a component of fertilizer and the source of the Oklahoma City bombing and the unfortunate accident in Beirut; trinitrotoluene, (TNT); 2,4-dinitrotoluene (DNT); pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), a plastic explosive; and cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine (RDX) or Royal Demolition explosive.

With so many types of high-energy explosives, we must discriminate among them so we know what to do to disarm them. It turns out the locust’s brain and sense of smell are capable of distinguishing the different explosive chemicals.

The scientists developed a way to see what the locusts were smelling by measuring their brainwaves. The scientists built a biorobotic sensing method that could detect and measure the activity of the locust’s brain cells in response to what it was smelling. They knew that specific brain cells would become active in response to different chemicals.

The scientists implanted electrodes in the locusts’ brains in a way that did not interfere with the locusts’ movement. By recording the brain activity when the locusts smelled different things, they could establish a pattern of activity that would become a “biosignature” for the different explosives.

The activity of these different brain cells allows researchers to gauge what and how much the locusts are smelling. The technology also allowed them to detect changes in explosive vapor concentration — as you get closer to the source, the “smell” gets stronger.

This method of measuring allowed detection of the chemicals in a head-turning 500 milliseconds. That’s incredible and could certainly be an efficient way to detect these dangerous weapons.

How might we use these biological terrorism sniffers in a practical way?

A good way to use these hybrid insects with brain-implanted electrodes would be to release them in dangerous or suspect areas to search for explosives in the environment. They would be difficult to detect, disposable and relatively inexpensive, especially considering what damage they would prevent. The phrase “the locusts are coming” would take on a new and positive meaning.

This still seems like something from a futuristic graphic novel, don’t you think? What will be next — will we find useful ways to work with other insects? Humans have a history of putting animals to work to make our lives easier. What if we developed mechanical versions of insects and fish to spy on our enemies? Sound outrageous, but wait, those have already been developed.

Medical Discovery News is hosted by professors Norbert Herzog at Quinnipiac University, and David Niesel of the University of Texas Medical Branch. Learn more at www.medicaldiscoverynews.com.

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