New Sensor Based On Human Nose Could Have Multiple Applications

 New bioelectronic sensor based on human nose developed for detecting odorsNew bioelectronic sensor based on human nose developed for detecting odors


According to a recently published study in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics, a team of researchers in South Korea has developed a bioelectronic sniffer for detecting stinky molecules in water. The interesting thing is this sensor is modeled after the abilities of the human nose. It seems science discovered that a person’s proboscis is especially sensitive to two particular molecules that are known for commonly slipping through water treatment systems. Those molecules are 2-methylisoborneol (MIB) and geosmin (GSM). Both of them are representative odor compounds predominantly produced by bacteria and often indicative of contamination in water supplies.

Water Quality

While neither MIB nor GSM is harmful when ingested, they give off a musty, earthy odor, which ultimately affects the taste of your drinking water. It’s this funky odor and/or taste that has contributed, in large part, to the success of the bottled water industry — that and convenience, but we digress. The sensor the South Koreans created was constructed using a human olfactory receptor-based bioelectronic schnoz capable of mimicking a person’s sense of smell in order to more quickly and easily assess the quality of potable water by sniffing out the odorants. Pretty cool, huh?

Bioelectronic Nose

During the study, the scientists were able to demonstrate that this replicated nose can serve as a sensor for monitoring water quality in what is known as real time, as well as on site, by directly detecting water contaminants without any prior treatment process. Translation: this device cuts down — and in some cases may even eliminate — the need for complex laboratory equipment and costly testing in relation to overseeing the quality and safety of public drinking water. In other words, this advanced electronic sniffer could save a lot of valuable time and money.

Water Testing

If you’re wondering how they managed to replicate a human being’s sense of smell, human olfactory receptors (hORs) were cloned using sequencing information from the Olfactory Receptor DataBase — yes, there is one.  From there it gets pretty complicated, but in tests it was discovered that this mechanical nose of theirs was able to detect GSM and MIB concentrations as low as 10,000 parts per trillion, as compared to our own noses being able to detect GSM at 5 parts per trillion. This is actually pretty impressive for a machine and considered an improvement from past numbers.

Multiple Industry Applications

While many people might view this sensor as a minor breakthrough for water testing, it has much larger implications for applications where a smelling device is needed, such as testing for things like cancer and other diseases, or even in smell-based consumer industries like perfume, wine, coffee or cosmetic sales. There’s also the potential the technology could one day be applied to dangerous substances and activities like drugs, bombs and cadavers, all of which have traditionally been sniffed out by dogs due to their superior sense of smell (as compared to humans). Sadly, after 9/11 many of the search and rescue dogs deployed to the World Trade Center fell victim to the same illnesses as their handlers after the search for survivors was concluded. Bioelectronic noses could some day negate the need for these dogs' services and be a lot more cost effective in the process.

Scientific Breakthrough

Finally, researchers say this new nose might actually help them build something that was previously unheard of: a smell classification system. Out of all of the five senses, two of them have eluded our ability to capture or record information in connection with them. Yes, we can record sights and sound and even touch, but there is no system so far for the classification of smell and taste yet. For those two senses, we still depend on our stock sensory systems we came equipped with at birth. With a bioelectronic device such as this new super sniffer, scientists hope to one day be able to systematically detect and label different smells and possibly come up with a “universal smell code” for use in future communication.