A real life ‘Danger Mouse’ could soon be saving lives by sniffing out land mines.
Scientists have bred genetically engineered rodents with super sensitive noses – that could also be used disease sensors.
They improved their smell by tinkering with their DNA, adding an odour receptor gene which boosted the number of sensory neurons.
In tests on live mice fluorescent imaging gave visual confirmation the receptors were functioning and present in greater numbers than others.
Experiments showed the animals were trained to avoid an unpleasant scent in water at levels much lower than those detectable by mice without super sniffer abilities.
Dr Charlotte D’Hulst, of the City University of New York, said: “The animals could smell the odour better because of the increased presence of the receptor.”
The plan is to unleash an army of supermice with special powers – like the cartoon spy Danger Mouse who saves the world with the help of hapless hamster Penfold.
The team is already commercialising their technology and has founded a company called MouSensor, LLC.
The same lab has also received funding from the US Department of Defense to develop super sniffing rats that can be trained to detect TNT and potentially find land mines.
The researchers also envision applications of the MouSensor for developing a type of nose-on-a-chip as a means of diagnosing disease using chemical detection profiling.
Professor Paul Feinstein said: “We have these millions-of-years-old receptors that are highly tuned to detect chemicals. We think we can develop them into tools and use them to detect disease.”
The study published in Cell Reports found the mice can be tuned to have different levels of sensitivity to any smell by using mouse or human odor receptors.
The noses of mammals contain a collection of sensory neurons, each equipped with a single chemical sensor called a receptor that detects a specific odour.
Professor Paul Feinstein tinkered with the mouse genome by introducing the DNA for an odour receptor gene transgenically, by injection, into the nucleus of a fertilized egg cell.
He also added an extra string of DNA to the gene sequence to see if it would alter the probability of the gene being chosen. After a few attempts, he found a string that, when copied four or more times, worked.
More copies of this extra string of DNA resulted in a series of super-sniffer mice with increasing numbers of neurons expressing a selected receptor. The mice still maintain a relatively even distribution of other odour receptors.