Scientists on to nose that detects death

By David Wylie, Canwest News ServiceAugust 18, 2009

An electronic nose that can detect the "smell of death," helping searchers recover bodies from disaster areas and aiding crime scene investigators to determine the exact time of death, is one step closer to wafting from the pages of science-fiction into real life.

Scientists have found that specific chemicals are released at incremental times after death, a breakthrough that bolsters the idea imagined in Ray Bradbury's classic 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451, of a mechanical hound that hunts its prey by following their scent. Bradbury describes the hound as having "sensitive capillary hairs in the nylon-brushed nostrils."

The author's idea doesn't seem far from what Pennsylvania State University forensic scientists envision in the future.

Dan Sykes, director of analytical instructional laboratories at the university and the project leader, said the goal is to match the abilities of cadaver dogs that help find and recover bodies buried after earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and other natural disasters.

"These dogs are highly effective, but it takes a lot of time, money and manpower to train them," said Sykes. "A device that is as effective as dogs, but is a fraction of the cost, would be something worth pursuing."

The research was presented Sunday at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Washington. The scientists are now trying to capture scents in different weather conditions, including snow. This is the most comprehensive research on the topic to date.

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