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Cybernose: smell like a butterfly, sniff like a bee

Australian scientists are trying to harness the odour receptors of insect antennae to develop a ‘cybernose’ to detect aromas in the minutest concentrations.

If successful, the device could detect brettanomyces, cork taint and fire damage in wines, which are caused by tiny amounts of chemicals.

Insects have the most sophisticated odour receptors in the animal world. Some wasps can detect odours at concentrations of one part per trillion.

Dr Stephen Trowell, who leads the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organisation (CSIRO) Future Foods program on biosensors is working on ways to use these receptors to develop a highly sensitive ‘cybernose’.

‘Each insect has about 60 different odour receptor proteins,’ he said. ‘Some are fairly general. They might detect all short chain esters, for example. Others are more tightly tuned.’

Animals get a pattern of responses from their multiple sensors. From this they work out which odour is which. Trowell plans to emulate this ability in the cybernose by cloning the receptors and mimicking their behaviour with electrical signals

‘We hope to tightly tune the cybernose to detect taints such as Brett, cork taint and fire damage, which are caused by tiny amounts of chemical in wine,’ said Dr Trowell.

Written by Frank Smith

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