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Giant Rats Finally Useful for Something: Detecting Tuberculosis

Scientists in Mozambique are training the rodents to detect TB bacteria at a far lower cost than other detection methods.

Image via APOPO.

“Giant rats” score high on my list of “Animals I Never Want to Ever Encounter” but it turns out the dingy rodents have at least two redeeming qualities (the first one being that they are great food for our cats). At the Eduardo Mondlane University, scientists are training kitten-sized rats to sniff out the bacteria that causes tuberculosis. In Mozambique, one of the World Health Organization’s 22 high-burden countries for tuberculosis, this kind of rat-powered detection process could prove to be much more practical—and far less costly—than GeneXpert, a diagnostic technology that can cost a cool $17K.

The rats, on the other hand, cost less than half of that to train—a process that only takes six months. Fully trained, the rats learn to signal to observers that a mucus sample contains the bacteria by rubbing their legs or holding their nose. If a sample is clean, they just stand still. According to the program director, the rats can run through a hundred tests in less than half an hour. A regular old lab human would take four days to finish the same amount of work. They are rewarded for every diagnosis made, which sounds like a pretty sweet gig considering their entire job consists of smelling things. Sign me up!

APOPO, the non-profit organization supervizing the research, also has a separate program to train rats to detect mines.

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