Data has shown that medically-trained dogs can sniff out certain human diseases. Researchers at MIT and colleagues are attempting to automate that ability by developing a computer system that can detect the chemical and microbial content of an air sample with even greater sensitivity than a dog’s nose. According to new research published in Plos One, their technology could someday incorporate an automated odor-detection system into a cellphone.

MIT’s Andreas Mershin and the team over the last few years have developed, and continued to improve on, a miniaturized detector system that incorporates mammalian olfactory receptors stabilized to act as sensors, whose data streams can be handled in real-time by a typical smartphone’s capabilities. He envisions a day when every phone will have a scent detector built in, just as cameras are now ubiquitous in phones.

Such detectors, equipped with advanced algorithms developed through machine learning, could potentially pick up early signs of disease far sooner than typical screening regimes, he says — and could even warn of smoke or a gas leak as well.