An electronic sniffer can not only determine when plants are under stress, it can also differentiate between those that have been damaged by caterpillars, mites, mildew, or by humans armed with a hole-puncher. In a new study, researcher Nigel Paul showed that an electronic nose can detect the subtle volatile organic compounds given off by plants that are under attack.
In previous experiments with artificial noses, researchers have found that they can tell the difference between champagne and other white wines, can find minuscule gas leaks in the space shuttle, and may even be able to detect the chemical compounds given off by cancer cells. But the new study, published in Environmental Science and Technology [subscription required], is the first to apply the technology to agriculture. Paul says that a number of electronic noses could be dotted around a glasshouse, checking the air for the early signs of pest attack. Portable electronic noses – about the size of a four-pack of beer – could be used to precisely locate infected plants [New Scientist].
In a development that may pave the way for the invention of an “artificial nose,” researchers have found a way to mass-produce the odor receptors found in human nostrils. An artificial nose could have military applications: DARPA has taken an interest in the research, which it believes could lead to the development of tools to replace drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs [io9]. But the technology could eventually be used in medical diagnostics as well, as diseases like skin and bladder cancer have distinctive odors.
Many researchers worldwide are working on “E-noses”, which detect the same molecules that make up the scents we recognise…. However, while many rely on sensors constructed from artificial materials, the US researchers are working on a sensor with the biology of the human nose at its centre [BBC News].