Alternative Tuberculosis Detectors: Honey Bees

Steve Chambers, a microbiologist, wanted to know what Tuberculosis smells like. So the researcher cultured Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacteria responsible for the disease and analyzed the chemical compounds it released to the air. He detected four key chemicals that were, according to Max Suckling, known insect attractants.

When he tested the breath of known Tuberculosis patients, he detected one of the four compounds, methyl nicotinate (exhaled as nicotinic acid by patients) as a key ingredient to the insect attractant.

Knowing the recent findings, Steve contacted Max Suckling, an ecological chemist who then studied the results. He first used a moth to measure its potential as an alternative Tuberculosis Detector. However, the experiment proved to be indiscriminate. The moth was giving positive responses to the chemical but was also responsive to the other odors.

Undeterred, Suckling remembered a company at UK that was developing an alternative way of sniffing out explosives. They were training honey bees to detect and locate explosives. Using Pavlovian conditioning, the trainers conditioned the bees to exhibit a reflex - they would stick out their tongue whenever they smelled a volatile compound indicating explosives in exchange for food.

If he could just copy the method, Suckling and Chambers would be able to create a new alternative and cheaper way of detecting and diagnosing Tuberculosis victims at its early stage.

With the aide of a summer student, Rachael Sagar, Suckling started training honeybees. Every time the bee stuck out its tongue on the right scent (methyl nicotinate), in exchange, it was rewarded with food.


SNIFF SCHOOL: Suckling’s and Sagar’s experimental setup with bees restrained and ready for testing (top). Sagar tests a honeybees’s proboscis-extension response to different odors.

"It was easy to train them" Suckling said. They were able to detect at least two of the compounds at very low concentrations.

Suckling and Chambers are now looking for grant funding to extend their research. If successful, the alternative method could have applications far beyond Tuberculosis detection.

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