What the Bio-Nose Knows

Futuristic Smeller Uses Talents of Living Cells

The toddler game “got your nose!” brings gales of laughter as we pretend to snatch the facial feature. But a real-life ability to relocate the sense of smell—and even enhance it beyond normal human limits—could assist activities as disparate as cooking and sniffing out chemical hazards.

A UMD research team’s ambitious “bio-nose” project aims to create a portable, biologically based device able to identify complex odors, backed by a four-year, $2 million National Science Foundation grant.

“There are applications in food, wine, perfumes, medical diagnostics, homeland security, agriculture, mold detection and more,” says project leader Elizabeth Smela, a professor of mechanical engineering. The interdisciplinary team includes faculty from biology, electrical and computer engineering, College Park Scholars, computer science and the Institute for Advanced Computer Studies.

To take advantage of nature’s amazing olfactory talents, it’s in the early stages of developing a sensor based on living cells. While mammalian cells need to be fed and held at body temperature to be kept alive, collaborators at the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Japan created a hardier insect-based cell line. The cells can be desiccated, or dried like yeast, and then re-animated with the addition of fluid at room temperature, rendering them ready to smell.


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