Dr. Stephen Chambers from the University of Otago, New Zealand successfully isolated volatile chemicals produced by cultured tuberculosis bacteria (Mycobacterium tuberculosis). Testing the breath of infected humans, he was also able to identify nicotinic acid, which was one of the volatile chemicals released by the cultured bacteria (as methyl nicotinate). As it turns out, methyl nicotinate is a chemical attractant for insects. This led Dr. Chambers to team up with Dr. Max Suckling at the New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research. Using Pavlovian conditioning, Dr. Suckling trained bees to stick out their tongues (proboscises) when they detected specific scents in exchange for a food reward. The researchers successfully trained bees to detect two of the volatile compounds released from the cultured tuberculosis bacteria. They are now working on training the bees to detect chemicals in the breath of people with tuberculosis in the hope of developing an inexpensive way to diagnose the disease in developing countries.
If you are planning on attending Experimental Biology 2012, don’t forget to enter the contest to win a free Dr. Dolittle “What’s New in Comparative Physiology” t-shirt and try your chance at also winning free coffee at the meeting! To learn more, click here.