Going beyond science fiction...

Sensors placed on the insect monitor neural activity while they are freely moving, decoding the odorants present in their environment. Credit: Baranidharan Raman

Advances in technology are impressive and by looking at them day after day should provide me with a sort of habit that anything new is not that surprising, nice but bound to happen.

And yet, once in a while, I stumble onto a news that generates the "wow"!  This is the case with the work being done at the Washington University in Saint Louis by a team of researchers led by prof. Baranidharan Baram on a funding by the Office of Naval Research. 

They have studied locusts and have managed to translate the signals flowing into their brain as response to the detection of specific odours. Locusts, as other insects, have thousands of "sensors" to detect specific odours (they are not as good as your dog that remains No. 1 in the sniffing competition...) and these researchers have decided to use them as moving sensors by applying a chip onto their head connecting it to their brain to pick up odour related signals and send them wirelessly to a computer for further analyses.

The amazing idea, and the technological prowess, is to use natural sensors AND the processing power provided by the living being to sense the environment. In particular the first target of the researchers is to use locust to detect explosives hidden in fields (like landmines).  Clearly this can be expanded to other purposes, like the sensing of dangerous bugs that may spoil a harvest. The path from military to civil application is something we have seen happening over and over.

In perspective the blending of bio and electronics (glued by information technology) is likely to become so ubiquitous that we might stop paying attention. For now, however, it remains a "wow" and at the ever fuzzier boundary between science and science fiction.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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