Poop-sniffing mice to the rescue

Animals can detect droppings left by ducks with Bird Flu

A scientist named Bruce Kimball has come up with a way to track the spread of Bird Flu, a disease that can be dangerous to humans.

Follow the poop, he says. Duck droppings, to be specific.

Bird flu, which is also called avian influenza, is caused by viruses carried around by birds. These viruses are contagious, which means Bird Flu can spread from wild birds to birds kept by people, such as chickens and some ducks. The disease can also make human beings sick, and scientists such as Kimball want to keep track of it. One of the ways disease can spread is through excrement.

Kimball doesn’t want to do the dirty work himself. Instead, he’s training animals. In his laboratory in Colorado, he has been teaching mice to identify droppings from ducks with Bird Flu. He says that if mice can learn to tell a sick bird by its poop, then maybe dogs can, too.

“I like to joke that we’re going to send people out with mice on leashes,” Kimball said in August while reporting his research at a meeting of the American Chemical Society. “But my vision is we could train dogs in much the same way.”

During training sessions, Kimball’s mice correctly picked out the feces, or poop, from infected ducks 90 percent of the time, or nine times out of ten. Once the mice were trained, Kimball tested their new skills on new samples. In those trials, mice correctly picked out the droppings from sick birds 77 percent of the time.

Kimball is a chemical ecologist at the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colorado, and the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. An ecologist is a scientist who studies the relationship between living things and where they live. A chemical ecologist studies the chemicals from these environments that living things use.

Kimball and his team don’t know exactly which chemical compounds the mice detect. The scientists suspect that when a bird is infected with Bird Flu, its immune system responds with certain chemicals. The mice may be responding to these chemicals in the feces of infected ducks.

Scientists know that disease causes chemical changes to a body. Diabetes and certain cancers, for example, can affect the chemistry of the breath of people with those diseases.

Kimball has shown that mice can be used to track Bird Flu. If dogs can also be trained, then they might help researchers learn where the disease is spreading — and the researchers can then figure out how to stop it.

Other scientists say that Kimball’s study is promising. “Based on my experience, if a mouse can be trained for a scent chore, so can a dog,” Gary Settles told Science News. Settles, who did not work on this study, is the director of the Gas Dynamics Laboratory at Pennsylvania State in University Park.

POWER WORDS (Adapted from the Yahoo! Kids Dictionary, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevents and Merriam-Webster’s online.)

Feces Bodily waste

Ecology The science of the relationships between organisms and their environments

Chemistry The science of the composition, structure, properties, and reactions of matter, especially of atomic and molecular systems

Chemical A substance with a distinct molecular composition that is produced by or used in a chemical process

Immune system The body system of organs, tissues, cells, and cell products such as antibodies that identifies threats to the body and tries to get rid of harmful organisms or substances.

Influenza A contagious viral infection characterized by inflammation of the respiratory tract and by fever, chills, muscular pain, and prostration.

Stephen Ornes lives in Nashville, Tenn., and his family has two rabbits, six chickens and a cat. He has written for Science News Explores since 2008 on topics including lightning, feral pigs, big bubbles and space junk.

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