The Washington Post

‘Breathprints’ offer clues about what makes you who you are


Volunteers blow air into a mass spectrometer, as pictured above, which converts the air into chemical components. Unlike older methods, the device can accept exhalation directly and produce results in mere seconds. (Xue Li /Christine Khammash/ETH Zürich)
Unique ‘breathprints’ offer information about what makes you who you are

What makes your body different from everyone else’s? Maybe you’re thinking fingerprints or the DNA that you leave on everything you touch. Now, add your breath to that list.

Researchers have found that individuals have unique “breathprints” that change throughout the day and that reflect chemical reactions in the body. In a study reported last week in the journal PLoS One, volunteers blew air into a mass spectrometer, an instrument that can measure the masses and relative concentrations of atoms and molecules. The device split the exhalation into its chemical components. Unlike older methods, which required samples to be prepared and then injected into the machine, the device used in this study can directly accept breath and show the results in seconds.

The researchers found that individuals’ breathprints changed slightly from sample to sample, but they always kept a core signature that was unique enough to identify that person. That means that a breathprint reflects what’s going on in a person’s body and isn’t just a random sampling of room air, researchers concluded. In the future, the authors say, such analysis might reveal the drugs you’ve been taking or biomarkers of diseases such as cancer.

Smaller versions of the machine may someday make their way into doctors’ offices and could be used to detect doping at races without sending samples to a lab.

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