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
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.
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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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