Taking BO 'fingerprints' to new levels

By Sharon Schmickle

In the movie “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou,” the George Clooney character, Everett Ulysses McGill, makes work easy for bloodhounds on his trail by slathering his hair with smelly Dapper Dan pomade.

Even without the help of Dapper Dan, those bloodhounds should have been able to sniff out McGill and the other two fugitives on an epic run from a prison chain gang.

It’s been pretty well established that each of the 6.7 billion people on Earth has a signature body odor.

Now scientists are taking that taking that BO “fingerprint” to new levels in a search for answers to fascinating questions: Can body odor reveal when someone is lying? Does itreflect your state of health, such as whether you have cancer or diabetes? Is it possible to smell anxiety in a person’s personal vapors?

This “odorprint” research is reported in Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly magazine published by the American Chemical Society.

An initial goal for the studies is to establish a scientific basis for dogs’ abilities to tell one person from another by smell.

Investigators in Europe and the United States have long used the forensic technique known as a scent lineup. They swab crime-scene evidence to capture a criminal’s scent and then line up the collected scent with “decoy scents.” A dog previously presented with a pad that had been swiped on a suspect is then set onto the scents to see whether the canine zeros in on the one associated with the crime.

But courts are asking for more validation of the forensic technique, Professor Kenneth Furton of Florida International University in Miami told Chemical & Engineering News.

Nailing down that validation is far from simple — especially given the deodorants, scented lotions and other concoctions we use to make our bodies less or more smelly. Then, of course, there’s garlic breath.

Furton and his colleagues have been searching for machine-detectable patterns in the volatile chemicals emitted by people. In one study, they swabbed the hands of 60 individuals with specially cleaned pads and used sophisticated chemical techniques to turn up 63 compounds the researchers could analyze through pattern-recognition techniques in order to distinguish individuals.

Validating scent lineups is just a beginning.

The U.S. government has funded research at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., which could lead to odor-based human ID systems. Think of them as a supplement the FBI’s fingerprint database. The vision is to build a database of odorprints and then install sniffing devices in places like airports in order track people of interest to police and the FBI.

This sort of government surveillance is not far-fetched, said Ivan Amato, the article’s author and a senior correspondent for Chemical & Engineering News.

I recommend reading Amato’s article for his support of that observation and for more details on the potential forensic and security applications of the research.

Beyond defense and law enforcement, this research delves into areas as highly personal as the odors coming from your underarms, breath, skin and genitals. (It turns out that different bacteria live in different places on our bodies, and from their respective posts they make different contributions to our odorprints.) The science has a long way to go, but it seems this cacophony of personal odors may one day reveal whether you are lying, sick, stressed out — or, maybe even, in love.

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