Sniffing earwax could offer icky new frontier in biometrics

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For most of us, earwax is a bodily product we prefer not to think about, keeping it at arms’ length on the end of cotton buds – but scientists analyzing the chemicals present in the waxy substance have found that it reveals a huge amount about its creator, and could even be used to identify people. The lead scientist on the Monell Centre project said wax, “could be an overlooked source of personal information.

Scientists from the Monell Centre analysed the chemicals that give earwax its distinctive, pungent smell – and found that compounds in the wax could be used to identify the wax creator’s racial origins, with ear wax differing markedly between East Asians and Caucasians.

Network World comments that the analysis of earwax is a a science in its infancy – Monell Centre describes itself as, “”the world’s only independent, non-profit scientific institute dedicated to interdisciplinary basic research on the senses of taste and smell.”

Thus far, the compounds in ear wax can be used to identify racial origin. Ear wax from 16 healthy volunteers was heated in vials, and the volatile compounds analysed. These odor-producing compounds differ widely between East Asian individuals and Caucasians.

“Our previous research has shown that underarm odors can convey a great deal of information about an individual, including personal identity, gender, sexual orientation, and health status,” said study senior author George Preti, PhD, an organic chemist at Monell. “We think it possible that earwax may contain similar information.”

Preti found that waxy-eared individuals were also more likely to have smelly armpits – a gene known as ABCC11 is related both to underarm odor production and also to whether a person has wet or dry earwax.

Scientists from the Monell Center have used analytical organic chemistry to identify the presence of odor-producing chemical compounds in human earwax. Further, they found that the amounts of these compounds differ between individuals of East Asian origin and Caucasians. The findings suggest that human earwax, an easily obtained bodily secretion, could be an overlooked source of personal information.

“Odors in earwax may be able to tell us what a person has eaten and where they have been,” said Preti. “Earwax is a neglected body secretion whose potential as an information source has yet to be explored.

Future studies will examine these possibilities.

Network World commented, “So, be warned, your identity, ethnicity, and lifestyle  could all potentially be revealed unless you shower a lot and keep your ears very clean. Just wait until the TSA droid at the checkpoint asks you to lift your arm ..”

Author Rob Waugh, We Live Security

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