The E-Nose: Scientists Compete with Nature's Prolific Sniffers

Illustration: Ned Shaw Volatile odorants spewing forth from every living thing reveal a hidden trove of factors like diet, health, and genetic composition. With astonishing acuteness, most animals can read these olfactory messages and model their behaviors accordingly. "Odors are their windows on the world," one researcher says of mice. Others have noted that some honeybees recognize illness in hives and avoid them.1 Dogs have alerted their owners to such maladies as melanoma2 and epileptic se

Brendan Maher
Sep 29, 2002
Illustration: Ned Shaw

Volatile odorants spewing forth from every living thing reveal a hidden trove of factors like diet, health, and genetic composition. With astonishing acuteness, most animals can read these olfactory messages and model their behaviors accordingly. "Odors are their windows on the world," one researcher says of mice. Others have noted that some honeybees recognize illness in hives and avoid them.1 Dogs have alerted their owners to such maladies as melanoma2 and epileptic seizures.3

For years, the industrial and defense arenas have used electronic sensors to detect toxic gases. Now, life scientists want to know if similar instruments, dubbed 'E-noses,' could be designed to make accurate medical diagnoses: A clinician might simply wave a wand over a patient and check for olfactory signatures. The future for such technologies evokes images more familiar to Star Trek fans, but throughout history doctors have relied on their noses...

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