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article imageFruit flies can sniff out drugs and explosives

By Tim Sandle     Oct 16, 2014 in Science
New research suggests that a fruit fly's enhanced sense of smell could potentially be used to sniff out bombs and drugs.
In many ways the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) is a remarkable insect. The eye of the fruit fly, for example, is made up of 760 mini-eyes, making it one of the most complex organs in nature. The fly also has a highly developed sense of smell. Fruit flies are normally regarded as a common pest in homes, restaurants, and other occupied places where food is served. They do, however, have a number of useful scientific applications.
D. melanogaster is used widely in biological research. It is, for example, a model organism for genetic analysis. Some new research has taken an applied tract. Scientists have discovered that the sense of smell that the fly uses to seek out fruit can be used to sense drugs and explosives.
Through a series of studies, scientists found that certain odors, such as explosives, that would ordinarily be considered unfamiliar to fruit flies were, in fact, recognized. In total, some 36 different chemicals (or "volatile odourants") were examined, from wine to drugs. In each case the recognition was successful, leading the researchers to state that fruit flies are "highly capable of distinguishing chemicals that they have not evolved to process."
This high detection rate was attributed to 20 different receptor neurons in the fruit flies. By monitoring the "firing rate" of each neuron, the researchers could tell which chemicals caused the strongest reactions in the flies. The longer term aim is to replicate these mechanisms to create sensitive electronic instruments for the detection of a range of chemicals.
The research was led by Professor Thomas Nowotny at the University of Sussex. The findings have been published in the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, in a paper titled "Drosophila olfactory receptors as classifiers for volatiles from disparate real world applications."
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