At the Mauna Loa Observatory the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide is measured using the absorption of infra-red light. This is a statistical technique that requires constant careful calibration. Mosquitoes, drosophila, and other insects have specific cpA neurons that detect $\ce{CO2}$. These insects are orders of magnitude smaller and more portable than the equipment at Mauna Loa.

What work is being done on unraveling the chemical processes used by cpA neurons in order to create more accurate detection of $\ce{CO2}$ levels?


There is a great difference between sensitivity, stability and accuracy. Neurons have great sensitivity to stimuli, i.e., detecting minuscule amounts, but neurons are not very accurate, i.e., they don't repeatably show the same response to a given stimulus, and are subject to synaptic fatigue. Given a large number of neurons in a very tightly controlled environment, over a short time, the accuracy can be improved, but it is far simpler and less expensive to use existing sensors.

There are currently available electronic gas sensors that are of the same order of size as mosquito neurons, and are much easier to interface to devices and to maintain. For example, see the list of $\ce{CO2}$ sensors from DigiKey.

Mosquitoes do have an advantage in their ability to locate a source of $\ce{CO2}$, though they also rely on water vapor, heat and volatile organic chemicals to find prey. So, if you itch to try out interfacing with mosquito neurons, you might make a better directional tracker for sources of $\ce{CO2}$... or $\ce{NH3}$, $\ce{CH3COOH}$, etc. However, the Mauna Loa $\ce{CO2}$ measurements are to detect long-term changes in global $\ce{CO2}$, not to track down breathing prey. Mosquitoes, and their neurons, are a bit ephemeral for that.

  • $\begingroup$ I have not found any information about the use of telescopes for the detection of CO2 at Mauna Loa Observatory. I would be interested in any links that you could provide that describe this technique. As I understand it, the sensor for which you provide specifications uses the concentration of a range of VOCs to estimate the concentration of CO2, but does not measure CO2 directly. $\endgroup$ – James Newton Aug 22 '20 at 11:05
  • $\begingroup$ @JamesNewton, the example I gave was invalid, and I rewrote the answer to be more specific to your question. $\endgroup$ – DrMoishe Pippik Aug 23 '20 at 2:55

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