Sniffer bees

Detecting tuberculosis is all in a day’s work for bees

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Scientists at Plant & Food Research have trained honey bees to detect the scent of tuberculosis.

Bees can sniff out the most subtle of scents, telling fragrances apart at extremely low concentrations. They are equipped with thousands of tiny sensilla (hair-like cells) on their antennae, giving them the ability to distinguish flowers, recognise others from the same hive, and receive messages coded in complex blends of pheromones.

In the past, bees have even been trained to detect chemical emissions from bombs and marijuana, at levels lower than is possible by most electronic equipment.

Researchers David Suckling and Rachael Sagar trained bees to detect volatile chemicals emitted from lab-grown Mycobacterium tuberculosis by rewarding them with sugar-water. After only a few exposures, the bees extended and waved their proboscises in expectation of food, actions which could be picked up by a digital camera fitted with pattern-recognition software.

It is not known whether chemicals emitted by the bacteria are present in the breath of people infected with TB, but if this novel research leads to diagnostics, it would result in more sensitive electronic detectors, at a fraction of the price.

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