Fruit flies can sniff out drugs and bombs, scientists say

A new study has shown that fruit flies can sniff out drugs and bombs almost as well as they home in on their favourite smell, fermenting fruit.

It was led by Professor Nowotny from the University of Sussex, helped by researchers from Monash University and CSIRO in Australia. They recorded how receptor neurons in fruit flies’ brains responded first to 36 chemicals related to wine, and then to 35 chemicals used in hazardous materials, which they assumed would be irrelevant to flies’ interests.

They found that 29 of the 36 wine-related smells caused at least one neuron to fire in recognition. They also found, to their surprise, that 21 of the 35 hazardous materials also caused a reaction.

Of course, drug- and bomb-sniffing flies aren’t likely to become a reality in airports anytime soon, being just a little harder to train than Beagles and Alsatians. But the scientists hope that having measured which parts of the flies’ smell-sensing systems lit up, they’re closer to making an electronic ‘nose’ that can detect scents more accurately than machines have managed so far.

There are some e-noses already available which use metal-oxide sensors, but these work slowly and are far less sensitive than the real thing. Creating an exact replica of a fruit fly’s smell sensing apparatus would be too complex, but Professor Nowotny and his team do think it’s possible to recreate the most important parts, and (as they describe in their paper in Bioinspiration and Biomimetics) have narrowed down ten sensors they think they can replicate to make a sensitive e-nose. They’re now working to make it a reality.

And that’s not only good news for our personal safety. Professor Nowotny says it could also be used to measure food (and wine) quality, detect volcanoes, and even check the state of our health (using breath analysis, for example). That’s not to be sniffed at.

By James Niland via Wikimedia Commons.

Diane Shipley