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Smart bugs could make you safer

January 18, 2006

Tifton -- In 2002, we introduced you to researchers who were training wasps how to find dangerous chemicals that could damage farmer's crops.

But now, those wasps have been trained to do more than protect farmers crops. They could track down drugs, explosive devices, possibly even disease.

The first word that probably comes to mind when you hear the word wasp is "ouch," but what if you knew that they can find toxic mold not detectable to the naked eye?

That they may one day be able to detect disease, before any modern technology can, and that wasps could even detect explosives?

And even more amazingly, that they could tell you what they found?

"There's lots of different applications that we've been looking at, the most we've done is food safety," said Associate Professor Dr. Glen Rains.

For years, researchers at the agriculture research service of USDA and University of Georgia in Tifton have been exploring what wasps can do for Ag safety.

Now they're moving on to other uses. "There's potential medical applications, applications in defense."

Defense of our country, it's borders, air, even water, taught through training that takes about 15 minutes. "They learn just like dogs and people and we found that we could train them."

The wasps are led to a food source after being starved for 48 hours. Near the food is another scent, like coffee. The process is repeated twice, and training is complete. To test it, they are brought to the scent again. When they smell coffee, they go straight to the scent, thinking food is there.

Because wasps can't be led around like a dog, they are put into a container, known as a wasp pound. There's a camera inside that captures their reaction. That reaction is logged into a computer.

Even though the process is simple, and in high demand, there's not an easy way to replicate it in mass. "The key problem is that this is such a new type of technology and no current infrastructure is set up to utilize that."

But once it is, Research Entomologist Dr. Joe Lewis thinks the possibilities are endless. "It is a fundamental new discovery and there's still a lot of research to be done, but the potential applications of it are immense."

One potential application would be training aquatic insects to locate contaminated water supplies.

A downside to training the wasps, is that they have to be re-trained every 48 hours, and they only have a life span of about three weeks as adults.

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