Scientists identify unique 'smell of human death'

Chemical cocktail emitted from decomposing flesh could help train dogs searching for missing bodies

(Image credit: Omar Torres/AFP/Getty Images)

Decomposing human bodies have a unique smell than separates them from other animal corpses, researchers have revealed.

Scientists from the University of Leuven in Belgium have discovered a cocktail of five chemical compounds that is given off by rotting human flesh, but not by other dead animals.

They believe that the findings, published in Plos, could be used to better train cadaver dogs, used by police and rescue teams to search for dead bodies after natural disasters.

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Eva Cuypers, a forensic toxicologist and the lead author of the study, said the team's research could even help develop portable devices that could detect corpses.

Researchers have been trying to understand the "smell of death" for more than a decade, says Science Magazine's Elizabeth Pennisi.

During that time "the list of organic, compounds given off during decay has grown quite long, but there have been conflicting reports about which ones are emitted only by humans", she explains.

The Belgian study involved analysing the gases that emitted from tissue and organ samples from humans and host of other animals including pigs, mice, rabbits, frogs and birds.

The forensic toxicologists were able to identify five compounds – known as esters - that were associated with the decay of muscle, fats, and carbohydrates and entirely unique to humans.

But Dr John Sagebiel, an analytical chemist at the University of Nevada, who was not involved in the research, said the study was too limited. "I don't think there's one specific thing that says it's human."

Cuypers admitted that the research had certain limitations, which would be addressed in further studies. "The next step in our research is to see whether the same compounds are found in buried, full decomposing bodies in the field and to see whether dogs trained on the mixture respond more specific[ally] to human decomposing bodies," she said.

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