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Anthony Capstick

Business, technology and broadband issues.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Smells by 3G mobile phone

It seems that 3G mobiles have at last found the killer appplication that could justify the many millions the license holders paid to the UK government. Scientists have found a way of transmitting a smell down 3G lines, so that people on the move will be able to sample perfumes, smell fresh bread and mentally escape by smelling fresh country air when in the middle of the city.

And as incredilble as it might seem this, like many other scientific advances, was discovered almost by accident. The story of how it happened is extraordinary.

A research team at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, recently succeeded in growing a genetically engineered human 'nose' on the leaves of the common garden weed, Thale cress. Thale cress, now more commonly known by its latin name Arabidopsis, had its entire genome sequenced in the year 2000 and has become the Rosetta Stone for scientists studying gene control. The 'nose' doesn't immediately resemble any nose you would recognise on the Mona Lisa or Bernhard Manning, but the leaf surface has an unearthly, pink, glistening appearance replete with small hairs.

By using a gene mapping technique called microarray analysis, the New Zealand scientists were able to monitor the pattern of human olfactory gene stimulation in response to 856 different odours. These not only included common odours such as vanilla and armpit, but also ran into the obscure and esoteric such as Ghanian monkey tuft nectar. One of the more unexpected results was that activation of the human olfactory genes could stimulate physical effects in the plant itself. Certain unpleasant odours (such as over-worn slippers) caused leaf wilt.

But possibly the biggest technical breakthrough came from 18 months of drudgery comparing the transcription levels of 38 olfactory genes with all of the odours. The results were startling. It was found that a distinct genetic pattern was associated with every odour. Project leader, Professor Tuku Tulongalofa realised the significance... "now we know which genes relate to which smell, and so it's simply a matter of matching electrical harmonics with gene activity. With this method we can induce a perception of any smell by electrical stimulation".

In other words each genetic fingerprint associated with each smell, can be stimulated by a distinctive musical chord - a blend of frequencies. This is not a chord you can hear, in fact it isn't sound at all but electromagnetic radiation in the microwave frequency range. And coincidentally, the very range used by mobile phones!

Previously it has only been possible to transmit 2 senses by mobile phone - images and sounds. The addition of a third sense is a real scientific milestone, and it remains to be seen how long it will be before we can send touch and taste by mobiles. The energy required to send objects, such as popularised in the file The Fly, is thought to require too much energy and therefore to be impossible. However I wouldn't bet on it after this discovery.


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