Anosmiacs, rejoice. MIT’s biological engineers, moving us ever closer to our transhuman future, have mass-produced lab-grown smell receptors — a breakthrough that will greatly increase their ability to study the way these proteins react to odor. Their goal is not only to unlock the secrets of olfaction, but also to create artificial devices with a real sense of smell.Just how the mammalian nose is capable of detecting such a wide range of odors remains a mystery, although olfactory researchers know that the number of genes responsible for smell receptors is related to the range of odors an animal can discern. So the mass production of these receptors in a lab represents a significant breakthrough in olfactory research:
"The main barrier to studying smell is that we haven't been able to make enough receptors and purify them to homogeneity. Now, it's finally available as a raw material for people to utilize, and should enable many new studies into smell research," said Brian Cook, who just defended his MIT PhD thesis based on this work.
DARPA has taken an interest in the research, which it believes could lead to the development of tools to replace drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs. But the researchers foresee medical applications as well:
In future work, the team plans to work with researchers worldwide, including MIT's Media Lab and Department of Biology, to develop a portable microfluidic device that can identify an array of different odors. Such a device could be used in medicine for the early diagnosis of certain diseases that produce distinctive odors, such as diabetes and lung, bladder and skin cancers, [Center for Biomedical Engineering associate director Shuguang] Zhang said. There are also a wide range of industrial applications for such a smell-based biosensing device, he said.