Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Sniffing Out the Opportunities


There is a timely article on using the sense of smells of rodents to solve human problems (www.theguardian.com/science/2016/feb/23/rats-who-sniff-out-tubersulosis). It has been known for some time that dogs (and pigs) can be trained to detect truffles, illegal drugs and even prostate and skin cancers. People have been relatively slow to consider other animals to provide cheap, chemical detection devices (almost preferring to try to develop robot 'noses'). Many of the candidate animals essentially live in a world of smells rather than visual input, so it is hardly surprising that they are finely 'tuned' to chemical detection. Rodents, like the Mongolian gerbil shown above (being generally nocturnal and burrowing), certainly should be considered. The article largely deals with the claims of the African giant pouched rat (Cricetomys gambianus), a large rodent that can be around 1kg  in weight and can be restrained on a lead. In their native Africa, these animals were successfully trained to detect traces of TNT issuing from buried land-mines (they are too light to set them off). As the funding for medical equipment is often restricted in such countries, they have now been used there to screen patients for tuberculosis (said to have a 'tar-like' smell). Animals have a variety of senses that are either a) more sensitive than or b) cover a different range from that seen in humans. There would seem to be lots of potential for employing their particular skills (or are we too hung up on electronics?).

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