Oklahoma State rat research could save soldiers' lives
BY SARA PLUMMER World Staff Writer
Monday, March 21, 2011
3/21/11 at 12:53 PM
STILLWATER - In the near future, rats could be saving American soldiers' lives.
The U.S. Defense Department recently awarded Alex Ophir, an assistant professor of zoology at Oklahoma State University, a $740,000 grant to study giant African pouched rats and their abilities to sniff out explosives and other hazardous materials.
The giant African pouched rats are already being used in Tanzania and Mozambique to clear areas of land mines as part of APOPO, an organizations that trains and uses the rats to detect land mines and screen people for tuberculosis.
Ophir visited Tanzania last summer and saw how APOPO was using the animals in the African country.
"I was captivated by what they were doing," he said, and wrote a grant application to further study the rats to determine if they can be used for explosive detection in areas where U.S. soldiers are stationed and working.
There's a lot of interest in detecting improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, Ophir said.
"There's a challenge to applying these animals to that," he said, and that's what his research will aim to do. "What capabilities can these animals be pushed to."
The rats, which are roughly the size of a small cat, are ideal for this type of work because of their great sense of smell and they don't weigh enough to set off the land mines, Ophir said. They're also easily trained, inexpensive to care for and maintain, very quiet and easy to transport in hostile environments.
"Other cultures, like Muslim cultures, consider dogs to be very dirty animals," he said, so rats may actually be more welcome. "They don't have the hang-ups about rats that we do."
Ophir and his research team, which he is beginning to assemble, will run experiments with the rats at OSU and travel to Africa to study them in their natural setting to learn genetically and behaviorally the best use of the animals. "We need to know about these animals so we know how to use them. We can get a lot of use out of these guys," he said.
The $740,000 grant will be distributed over five years and will cover operating costs, animal care and personnel costs.
"Doing research doesn't come cheap," Ophir said, and he is grateful to be awarded the grant. "With budget cuts the way they are, basic research is usually the first on the chopping block so there's more and more competition for grant funds. To get any grant funds is fantastic."
Loren Smith, zoology department head at OSU, said it's a substantial grant for the department.
"This is one of the most significant grants. It certainly means a lot to the department," said Smith, who added the zoology department doesn't get a lot of defense grants. "It's a very unique topic. It could really help with the safety of our troops and people around the world," he said.
It is becoming more common for professors in the zoology department to be awarded research grants, Smith said.
"Nine new faculty have joined the department and grants have gone up by over 200 percent," he said. "Research in zoology is really on a fast track right now."
Ophir, who has been studying animal behavior for almost 10 years, is one of the those newer faces in OSU's zoology department. He joined OSU's faculty just two years ago.
"It's not typical to get a grant this big this early in a career," he said. "I count my blessings."
For more on APOPO and its work with giant African pouched rats, go to tulsaworld.com/apopo
Original Print Headline: Rats may save troops' lives
Sara Plummer 918-581-8465
Alex Ophir, assistant professor of zoology at Oklahoma State, is also working on observing African giant pouched rats in various parts of Africa, studying their behavioral variation. ZACH GRAY / Tulsa World
In another research project, OSU scientist Alex Ophir is studying prairie voles, shown above in a behavioral apparatus. ZACH GRAY / Tulsa World