If you’re at an airport, you may occasionally see a police officer roaming around with a determined looking dog who is sniffing around for bombs or even illegal narcotics. In the not-so-distance future, you might also have health care workers leading around mice that are used to sniff for disease.
U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist Bruce A. Kimball recently presented a study at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society that showed mice could be trained to smell bird feces in order to detect if the bird was infected with bird flu. It was only a proof-of-concept study involving a team of scientists from the USDA and the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, but it may eventually lead to a powerful weapon for preventing the spread of disease and making global travel safer.
While Kimball likes “to joke that we’re going to send people out with mice on leashes,” but actually thinks dogs will be more practical. “We anticipate use of trained disease-detector dogs to screen feces, soil, or other environmental samples to provide us with an early warning about the emergence and spread of flu viruses,” he said.
According to Gary Settles, director of the Gas Dynamics Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, dogs should be just as good at smelling poop as mice are:
Based on my experience, if a mouse can be trained for a scent chore, so can a dog … I know of no chemical-trace detection chore that mice can do but dogs cannot.
Kimball’s team is also trying to find electronic ways to detect whatever it is in the poop that the mice are detecting. For right now though, mice are “much better right now” than their electronic counterparts. When bribed with water treats, the thirsty trained mice identified infected poop 90% of the time. Without the treats, they could still tell bird flu poop from healthy poop 77% of the time.
Here’s a picture of one of Kimball’s poop-smelling, “bio-sensor” mice:
(Don’t worry, the picture’s not of him smelling poop — that’s him getting his water reward after successfully sniffing out the bird flu poop.)
Kimball also suggested that further research might try to determine if infected animal’s bodies also give off tell-tale odors, then you wouldn’t even need to make a mouse or dog or fancy technological instrument smell any poop.