Study yields insight into the mystery of smell

May 9, 2016, University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences
smell
Credit: Petr Kratochvil/public domain

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have uncovered the mechanism underlying a phenomenon in how we smell that has puzzled researchers for decades. In an article appearing online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team reports that, surprisingly, the mechanism follows a simple physics principle called cooperativity.

Inhalation of a scent sends a complex mixture of swirling toward the back of the nose, where they bind to specialized receptors that are located on millions of olfactory . Activation of these receptors sends signals from the to the brain, where the smell is deciphered.

Individual neurons have only a single type of receptor and, therefore, recognize only specific odor molecules. However, the hundreds of different types of are found, or expressed, in approximately equal numbers across the entire population of neurons, which allows a person to detect a wide variety of smells, explained senior investigator Jianhua Xing, Ph.D., associate professor of computational and systems biology, Pitt School of Medicine. Richard Axel, Columbia University, and Linda Buck, now at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, received the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering the receptors and making these observations.

"Over the past decades, neuroscientists have been trying to uncover how nature accomplishes these two goals: selecting one, and only one, type of olfactory receptor for each neuron, while at the same time ensuring that all receptor types are represented in the whole population of neurons," said Dr. Xing.

The mysteries of how we smell have generated many experimental observations about how olfactory receptors actually work. In the new study, Dr. Xing and colleagues used these existing experimental data to create a computational model of how olfactory receptor expression can be both uniform across a single neuron, yet very diverse across the entire population of neurons. They then used this model to correctly predict several additional findings that have been demonstrated by other research groups, demonstrating that their model is valid.

Surprisingly, the model suggested a three-pronged regulation of olfactory receptor gene expression that follows a basic physics principle called cooperativity, in which elements in a system influence the behavior of one another rather than function independently. Cooperativity can explain many phenomena, such as the transition between liquid and vapor states, why oil and water do not mix, and even other biological processes such as how a protein folds.

"We are amazed that nature has solved the seemingly daunting engineering process of olfactory receptor expression in such a simple way," said Dr. Xing.

The findings pave the way for new predictions about how olfactory receptors function that can be tested in future experiments, the results of which will help the team refine their model and make even more predictions.

Explore further: NanoCAGE reveals transcriptional landscape of the mouse main olfactory epithelium

More information: Achieving diverse and monoallelic olfactory receptor selection through dual-objective optimization design, PNAS, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1601722113

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michael_frishberg
1.7 / 5 (3) May 10, 2016
User interface gurus for virtual reality will be quite interested, the total (including inhalation) Avatar experience, plugs up your nose, and your tongue is reached by another mechanism...to give it the proper taste at the time....
Smell of TANKS (diesel, sweat and exhaust)
Smell of blood and inside out intestines...
etc.
I quit gaming when Pin Ball machines were still popular, and common...
rderkis
2 / 5 (4) May 10, 2016
BartV I agree with you about God but disagree on why you reached that conclusion. They don't state it here but the article is probably just theory. The reason I say that is recently I have read about studies that claim smell is not molecular in nature but instead is based on Quantum vibrations. I really don't think we have a handle yet on much of anything but we will get there eventually.

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