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Sensors based on a lobster 'nose' may someday sniff out landmines

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Scientists in Florida 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 landmines 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 that settle on the hairs 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 January issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, may provide hints on ways to improve the devices to detect landmines and other explosives, said Jose Principe, an electrical and computer engineer 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 W. 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.

"Our idea of smell is evolving," he said.

Principe said scientists have long understood that time plays a part in acoustics and vision but had not recognized the importance of time in smell.

"Amazingly you go to the lobster and you find cells that are associated with timing, that measure time. ... From these cells the animal is able to quantify the time since the last encounter with a smell," Principe said.

The findings also add to knowledge about the sense of smell in people and in other animals.

Principe said he expects potential commercial applications to be available in the near future.

"You find a principle and then you out it in engineering terms to create our devices," he said.

(Editing by Kevin Gray and David Gregorio)

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