Sniff out explosives with ‘lobster radar’

Just as a person can hear a train moving from left to right, a lobster’s set of olfactory neurons set the scene for the location of a smell. (Credit: SEFSC Pascagoula Laboratory/Collection of Brandi Noble; NOAA/NMFS/SEFSC)

The way lobsters find a specific scent might one day keep soldiers safe on the battlefield.

Researchers say the neurons involved in “lobster radar” could be used to develop improved electronic “noses” to detect landmines and other explosives.

For many years, scientists have worked to create sensors that can detect everything from contamination in food products to harmful bacteria, as well as land mines and explosives. And because of the dangerous nature of hazardous material detection, scientists are constantly looking for ways to improve those devices.

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“An electronic nose has to recognize an odor and locate its source. Finding the source has often been the job of the person handling the electronic nose,” says Barry W. Ache, distinguished professor of neuroscience and biology at the University of Florida and director of the Center for Smell and Taste at the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute.

To date, the technology has had its drawbacks—especially when the nose is used to detect potentially deadly materials that could endanger its human handler.

Researchers originally discovered a type of olfactory neuron in lobsters that constantly discharges small bursts of electrical pulses, much like radar uses pulses of radio energy to detect airplanes or thunderstorms.

They speculated that these so-called “bursting” neurons might cue the crustaceans in on an odor’s location—especially important when they are searching for food or trying to avoid danger. “Animals need to recognize a smell, but also determine where it is coming from,” Ache says.

Whiff response

Odors exist as compounds that move through the air or water and settle on olfactory neurons in “whiffs.” The time between whiffs depends on the distance between the smeller and the source of the smell. Sensing the time intervals allows animals to determine the location of an odor. That’s where bursting olfactory neurons from lobsters come in.

To try to solve the mystery of how lobsters process sensory information, researchers took information gleaned from these cells and created a computational model based on the range of such cells found in the olfactory organ. Their findings are published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Each bursting cell responds to a whiff at a different frequency, Ache says. Together, the neurons help pinpoint the location of a particular odor. Just as a person can hear a train moving from left to right, a lobster’s set of olfactory neurons set the scene for the location of a smell.

By entering the lobster olfactory data into a computer model and giving artificial silicon neurons the same features found in the crustacean ones, then subjecting the neurons to simulated whiffs of odor, the researchers could determine how the bursting neurons function and how they set a scene that tells the animal the source of a smell.

“These cells as a population seem to provide a system for detecting odors in the spatial world,” Ache says. “We hope not only to learn more about how these systems work, but how that information might be applied to challenges such as electronic noses.”

In addition to improving electronic sensors, this finding will help scientists better understand the sense of smell in all animals, including humans.

“The involvement of bursting sensory neurons in olfactory processing is not unique to the lobster,” Bobkov says.  “It’s likely to be a fundamental aspect of olfaction.”

Source: University of Florida