It is Christmas again, traditionally the period in which one of the local radiostations organizes a benefit campaign for some praiseworthy charity organization.
This year, the university of Antwerp contributed to the campaign by raising money for one of their own projects, called Apopo. This project is a wonderful example of the use of biology in our society. The Apopo-project is a university-supported and Africa-based training program for rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis.
Isn’t that just plain wonderful use of biological knowledge?
In 2010, on an internship with the university to Tanzania, we visited the training site of these hero rats. For no more reward than pieces of delicious banana, they help to clean post-war regions from highly dangerous landmines. They use their sensitive little noses to smell the ammunition. This same skill and hunger for bananas can be used to recognize the smell of tuberculosis in sputum samples, significantly speeding up tuberculosis diagnosis in highly populated areas in Africa.
Wonderful project, no doubt about it, but unfortunately very expensive. It costs approximately 6000 euros to train a rat. From then on, it can luckily be used for a long time, sniffing through fields and warning the mining service where to find the explosives. Fortunately, they are not heavy enough themselves to let the mines explode, so sacrificing the cute little heroes is not necessary.
(They proudly joined the ‘Animals’-gallery on the right of this blog).