Can you judge a person's health simply by smelling their bodily waste? It sounds unlikely - but scientists from Warwick University say that not only is it possible, it can be more accurate and faster than traditional methods of diagnosis.
By using a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer, they say it is possible to spot certain conditions by examining the volatile compounds - fragrances and odours - present in breath, blood, urine and faeces.
Researcher Dr Mark Pharaoh said they were now using technology designed by the motor manufacturing industry to diagnose inflammatory bowel conditions and manage them.
"We have sensitive equipment which can measure parts to the million and parts to the billion at times," he said.
"It will assist with early diagnosis and faster diagnosis of things like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gastric disorders.
"There are millions of people suffering from them and it really damages their quality of life."
Fermentation of undigested foods in the colon by its resident bacteria affects not only colonic health by protecting against inflammation and tumour formation but also influences metabolic health, which if knocked out of balance can cause complications such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
But in the past collecting data about the fermentation and the gasses it produces has proved difficult.
Dr Ramesh Arasaradnam, a lecturer at Warwick Medical School and gastroenterologist at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwick, said the discovery could have a profound implication on the treatment of gastroenterological conditions.
"This is could be a vital new tool in the diagnosis of gastrointestinal as well as metabolic diseases," he said.
"Gaining first hand information of what is going on in the gut would require very invasive procedures.
"Even simply culturing the bacteria from a patient's urine or faeces takes a considerable amount of time.
"This technique could give medical consultants such as myself valuable information about what is causing a patient's condition long before the data from a standard bacterial culture would be available.
"We felt it had quite an important role in maintaining health and if the fermentation pattern was disturbed in some way that could predispose someone to certain bowel related disorders," he said.
"We were rather stymied though because we had no way of measuring it so it was quite by chance that one of the engineers told us about the machine they used for measuring volatiles in the car industry and we thought that was probably something we could use in our quest."
The scientists collected samples from healthy and sick individuals, as well as from horses and cows.
"Our early results seem to indicate that there is clearly a difference between healthy subjects and those with certain diseases such as Crohn's disease and colitis, which come under the umbrella of an inflammatory type bowel," Dr Arasaradnam said.
He added there were high hopes the technology could be adapted.
"We also want to look at IBS and eventually cancer in the hope it will lead to early detection.
"Eventually we also want to look at diabetes and obesity because the bugs that lie in the bowels of the obese are clearly distinct from those in lean people.
Dr Suneil Kapadia, of the British Society of Gastroenterology, said the research showed great promise and could have many applications.
"I agree that trying to study compounds from the colon is very difficult," he said.
"This could have applications in diseases of the colon such as inflammatory bowel disease and other causes of diarrhoea."
The research is not expected to be in general use for several years.