Breathprints? As Good as Fingerprints?

19 Sep

When we breathe, we take in air which is rich in oxygen (02) and expel air which is richer in carbon dioxide (CO2). The oxygen in the inhaled air is removed by the bloodstream and carried to the body so that the cells will have the oxygen they need to perform all their functions and indeed stay alive. A byproduct of cellular metabolism is CO2, which is picked up by the bloodstream and carried back to the lungs for exhalation. Good air in, bad air out. Simple and clean.

But the exhaled air contains more than just CO2. Hundreds of other molecules and compounds, also byproducts of our metabolic processes, are excreted by the lungs. These can be sampled and analyzed.

It seems that researchers at ETH Zürich and the University Hospital Zürich have begun analyzing exhaled air in the hopes of finding a “fingerprint” that could serve to individualize people. Much as true fingerprints and DNA do.



So far they have discovered that the chemicals exhaled by a given individual is highly specific and does not change dramatically over time. There are minor variations on a day-to-day basis but in general it seems that a person’s “breath print” is indeed unique. If so this could prove to be another useful method of identification.

Not to mention its medical possibilities. For many years doctors have used the odor of a patient’s breath to help make diagnoses. The odor associated with diabetic ketoacidosis, renal failure, and liver failure are each quite distinct. Though further testing is necessary to prove the diagnosis, it is often suspected from the odor surrounding the patient.


7 responses to “Breathprints? As Good as Fingerprints?

  1. dorothyanneb

    September 19, 2013 at 9:42 am

    might be difficult to have in a forensics situation unless it was a true closed room mystery…;-)


  2. Cheryl B. Dale

    September 19, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    Interesting but I agree with dorothyanneb: how could you use it in a mystery?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      September 19, 2013 at 3:22 pm

      Probably can’t since it is new and as yet unproven and unavailable. But maybe someday. We’ll see how this cutting edge research pans out.


  3. Brenda

    September 19, 2013 at 6:40 pm

    Thanks for another interesting possibility for the future!


  4. tom combs

    September 19, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    Immediate use in fiction has not jumped to mind but it may represent a unique and useful biometric. Utilization as an access control element (similar to prints or retinal scans) or in other identification confirmation technology might be possible. I suspect use in mystery or thriller plots would not be far behind.(e.g. program the identification technology device to release toxin when specified target ‘breathprint’ is read. Breathprint registered – toxin released – specific individual killed)


  5. Teddi Deppner

    September 19, 2013 at 8:50 pm

    Even if you can’t use it in a typical modern-day mystery, this is great for a sci-fi story or even a paranormal one with a werewolf who has a sensitive nose. Identifying someone in the dark by their breath… knowing someone has liver failure just by smelling them… There’s a lot of fun story opportunities for a werewolf character with a sensitive snout!


  6. Frank Karl

    September 20, 2013 at 8:16 am

    Reminds me of the Bertillon system, a pre-finger print method of prisoner ID based on a unique set of body measurements which were collected at the time of your arrest and incarceration. The system was later supplement by the now classic mug shot photos. It was an excellent system that Holmes approved of, but…

    That crumbled in 1903 when Will West was arrested and based on both mug shot and Bertillon measures was found to be simultaneously standing in the prison receiving area and occupying a cell in that prison. Shades of quantum mechanics!!!

    The two were distinguished by finger prints. One wonders what DNA analysis might have said if it was available.



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