In an effort to extend the sensory range of 'electronic noses' (e-noses), scientists from CSIRO's Food Futures Flagship have developed a system that would help compare their performance against the much-superior nose of the common house fly.
"Although e-noses already have many uses - such as detecting spoilage in the food industry and monitoring air quality - they are not as discriminating as biological noses," said CSIRO scientist, Dr Stephen Trowell.
"Our efforts to improve e-noses recently received a boost following our development of a new system which enables us to compare technical sensors with biological sensors," he added.
During the study, the research team looked at how the most common type of e-nose sensors - metal oxide or 'MOx' receptors - sample the air around them.
They later compared it with the performance of odorant receptors from the common house fly, Drosophila.
"We already know that fly receptors, unlike most other bioreceptors, are not very specific. Even so, it really surprised us how much narrower the responses of the MOx sensors were than the biological ones," said Trowell.
"We also found that the fly bioreceptors outperformed the MOx sensors in their levels of independence," he added.
Trowell said that these results will help in the design of better e-noses and help understand better how biological systems work.
This research is part of a much larger project developing an improved electronic nose, the Cybernose, for use in the wine industry.
Using insect receptors, the Cybernose will detect volatiles and contaminants in grapes and wine, thus allowing winemakers to improve their wines.
When completed, the Cybernose will have wide application for detecting ripeness and spoilage in a range of foods as well as other applications such as detecting explosives.
The study is published in the science journal PLoS ONE.