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Dolphin ‘Breathalyzer’ Could Help Diagnose Animal and Ocean Health

Alcohol consumption isn’t the only thing a breath analysis can reveal. Scientists have been studying its possible use for diagnosing a wide range of conditions in humans — and now in the beloved bottlenose dolphin. In a report in the American Chemical Society (ACS) journal Analytical Chemistry, one team describes a new instrument that can analyze the metabolites in breath from dolphins, which have been dying in alarming numbers along the Atlantic coast this year.

by American Chemical Society
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Scientists capture a dolphin’s breath from its blowhole using a tubular instrument and then analyze it for signs of health problems.American Chemical SocietyCristina E. Davis and colleagues note that studying dolphins’ health is about more than preserving their populations — the popular mammals also can serve as sentinels for overall ocean health. But invasive techniques such as skin biopsies and blood sampling, which are the most effective ways to test their health, are difficult to perform. An intriguing alternative comes from research on human-health monitoring with breath analyzers. Exhaled breath contains compounds called metabolites that can hint at a person’s diet, activity level, environmental exposures or disease state. Davis’ team wanted to develop a way to capture dolphin breath so they could gather this kind of information on marine mammals.

The researchers designed an insulated tube customized to trap the breath exhaled from the blowhole of the bottlenose dolphin. They tested it on dolphins both in the wild and under human care. The scientists established baseline breath profiles of healthy animals and identified changes in the breath of animals affected by disease or other factors. The researchers conclude that breath analysis could someday be used to diagnose and monitor problems in marine mammals — and by extension, in ocean health.

The authors acknowledge funding from the Office of Naval ResearchThe Hartwell Foundation and National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

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