It's not often here at Crave that we get to write about frog eggs and robot noses in the same story, so when we saw this report in the latest issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we smelled an opportunity.
The paper detailing the research is called "Highly sensitive and selective odorant sensor using living cells expressing insect olfactory receptors." Loose translation: take specially treated frog eggs, inject some insect RNA, put the concoction into a fluidic sensor, and stick the device up a robot's nose to give the bot a sense of smell far more sensitive than today's electronic sniffers.
The research, led by bioengineer Shoji Takeuchi at the University of Tokyo's Institute of Industrial Science, might not be as strange as it seems once you get past the oddity of robot noses enabled by oocytes and genetic material from moths and flies. The scientists say they've developed a compact smelling sensor, about the size of a matchbook, that could be easily placed into portable robotic systems to monitor hard-to-detect polluting gases and distinguish between closely related chemicals.
Apparently, injecting insect RNA into the African clawed frog eggs allows the insects' living smell sensors to function in their new environment when placed between electrodes and monitored for currents generated when different molecules bind to the receptors.
Using their method, the scientists got a robot to shake its head when it smelled moth pheromones (watch the bot headshake in the NewScientist video below), and say they achieved consistent, reproducible results in their tests. But don't expect their system to be commercially available for about 15 years.
If you're seeking a more scientific explanation of how frog cells and insect RNA intersect to create smell-sensitive robots, try this supplementary PNAS material (PDF). But be prepared for sentences like these: "The samples were mixed with 2 X electrophoresis sample buffer and then separated on 10-20 percent gradient sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS)-polyacrylamide gel."
We'll just stick with "robot head, frog eggs: ribbit."