60-Second Science

Four-Legged Biosensors Sniff Out Bird Flu

Mice were trained to identify feces from bird flu-infected ducks by smell. Cynthia Graber reports

You’ve probably seen dogs working security at airports, sniffing for drugs, bombs and contraband food. Now our best-friend biosensors might have a new task: ferretting out the scent of bird flu.

And they may not be alone on the job. Researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Monell Chemical Senses Center trained mice to identify duck droppings from animals infected with bird flu. The work was presented at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston. [Bruce Kimball et al.]

The scientists trained six mice to run a maze in search of infected feces. Every time they found the right feces, they got a drink of water. The mice learned to choose infected over noninfected duck feces about 90 percent of the time.

The researchers believe the implications could be twofold. First, bird flu apparently leaves an odor imprint on bird feces, and so dogs—and even mice—could be trained to recognize it. Second, scientists might be able to isolate the cocktail of compounds that gives off the odor to develop lab instruments or automated field detectors. Until then, we may find four-legged sensors, large and small, sniffing away to protect us from a bird-borne epidemic.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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