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Lobster-Style Sniffer Could Catch the Scent of a Land Mine

Scientists say the way a lobster picks up scents on the sea floor could help them develop better technologies for detecting land mines.
Image: Florida spiny lobster
Researcher Yuriy Bobkov of the University of Florida's Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience holds a Florida spiny lobster in the laboratory in San Augustine, Fla.Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

ORLANDO, Fla. — Scientists studying the way lobsters sniff around for food on the sea floor say they have found a clue to developing technology that could help soldiers detect land mines and hidden explosives from a safer distance than current technology allows.

A lobster's "nose" is actually a pair of hairy antennules that capture odor molecules and help the creatures locate an odor, researchers at the University of Florida said. They are studying an olfactory neuron that emits bursts of electrical pulses, much like radar systems use pulses of radio energy to detect airplanes or thunderstorms.

The team's findings, published in the Jan. 15 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, may provide hints on ways to improve the devices to detect explosives, said Jose Principe, an electrical and computer engineering professor on the research team.

Current detectors "sniff out" explosive materials, but need a human handling the electronic nose to pinpoint the exact location, Principe said. A new device using a "lobster nose" could direct human handlers to the source from a safe distance.

For a lobster, each bursting neuron responds to a whiff at a different frequency, according to Barry Ache, a distinguished professor of neuroscience and biology and director of the University of Florida's Center for Smell and Taste. Sensing the time between whiffs helps the lobster pinpoint the source, Ache said.

Computer modeling of the lobster olfactory cells helped the team understand how a lobster was extracting and processing information from the environment, Principe said.

— Barbara Liston, Reuters