$2M NSF Grant Supports Project Based on Olfactory Abilities of Living Cells
By Joanna Avery
Illustration from iStock
The toddler game “got your nose!” brings gales of laughter as we pretend to snatch the facial feature. But a real-life ability to transport the sense of smell elsewhere—and even enhance it beyond normal human limits—could help in activities ranging from cooking to sniffing out chemical hazards to tracking the location of a lost person.
Now, a UMD research team’s ambitious “bio-nose” project aims to create a portable, biologically based device capable of identifying odors in the built environment, backed by a four-year, $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
“If we had handheld devices that could recognize complex odors, a lot of things would be possible,” said project leader Elisabeth Smela, a professor of mechanical engineering. “There are applications in food, wine, perfumes, medical diagnostics, homeland security, agriculture, mold detection and more.”
The interdisciplinary team also includes biology Professor Ricardo Araneda, electrical and computer engineering Professor Pamela Abshire, College Park Scholars Science, Technology and Society Program Director David Tomblin, and computer science and Institute for Advanced Computer Studies Professor Abhinav Shrivastava.
Species including dogs, humans and insects have an extraordinary capacity for smell, allowing them to distinguish an extensive array of odors across different environments. To take advantage of nature’s capacity for olfactory reception and scent recognition, the team is working on developing a sensor based on living cells.
However, in the past, using cells for this type of application has been challenging. Mammalian cells need to be fed and held at body temperature to be kept alive, necessitating a more practical approach.
“Think about the yeast that you keep dried at home. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had some cells that we could keep dry until we were ready to use them?” Smela asked.
The team’s collaborators at the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization (NARO) in Japan created an insect-based cell line capable of just that. The cells can be desiccated, or dried, and then re-animated with the addition of fluid at room temperature. Such cells don’t normally express olfactory receptors, so the NARO researchers added the genes into the cell line to allow them to sense odors.
Currently, the team is studying how the cell line responds when it is introduced to different liquids—one step of many on the way to developing a fully usable bio-nose device. Future challenges include detection of airborne odorants and using machine learning to discover how a collection of cells reacts when exposed to various odors in order to identify the sources.
“The addition of biological components to technology as well as the positive impact that an artificial nose could have on people’s lives makes this research particularly exciting,” said Smela.
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