Advancing the science of smell—with a hint of musk

April 9, 2018, Yale University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Researchers have identified key molecular mechanisms at work when people smell musks, a highly valued group of fixatives used in many perfumes and colognes. The discovery may have implications for a wide range of effects on mood and behavior in vertebrates, said the scientists.

The research is the latest step in the ongoing scientific exploration of how human smell starts at the —an intricate, chemical process that has long eluded scientists. A Yale-led research group described the findings in a study published online April 9 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Our computational structural models of olfactory receptors have guided mutagenesis experiments and provided understanding of the interactions responsible for musk binding," said Victor Batista, a chemistry professor at Yale and one of the principal investigators for the study. Batista is also a member of the Energy Sciences Institute at Yale's West Campus.

Batista and his colleagues are proponents of a theory that smell is initiated by specific molecular interactions between odorants and G protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) in the in the nasal cavity, triggering memories and eliciting responses based on experiences with that scent. Previous research by the group identified two in humans, OR5AN1 and OR1A1, that respond to musk compounds.

Although musks are widely used in perfumes and in traditional Chinese medicine, little is known about how they work at the molecular level during olfaction. Such knowledge, note the researchers, could help advance the study of the pharmacological effects of musks.

The researchers developed structural models of OR5AN1 and OR1A1 based on quantum mechanics/molecular mechanics hybrid methods, a molecular simulation method that enables the study of chemical processes in solution and in proteins. These structural models predicted binding sites on OR5AN1 and OR1A1 for a variety of musks.

"Our findings allow us to understand how olfaction works at the molecular level," said Yale postdoctoral associate Lucky Ahmed, the study's co-lead author.

The researchers found that OR5AN1 responds to macrocyclic and nitromusk compounds (two groups of synthetic musks), while OR1A1 responds prominently only to nitromusks. The researchers also identified that aid in the binding process.

Explore further: A controversial theory of olfaction deemed implausible

More information: Lucky Ahmed el al., "Molecular mechanism of activation of human musk receptors OR5AN1 and OR1A1 by (R)-muscone and diverse other musk-smelling compounds," PNAS (2018).

Related Stories

A controversial theory of olfaction deemed implausible

June 5, 2015

Humans can discriminate tens of thousands of odors. While we may take our sense of smell for granted, it adds immeasurably to our quality of life: the aroma of freshly brewed coffee; the invigorating smell of an ocean breeze ...

Plausibility of the vibrational theory of smell

April 20, 2015

The vibrational theory of olfaction explains several aspects of odorant detection that theories based purely on receptor binding do not. It provides for additional selectivity through receptors that are tuned to specific ...

Understanding sulfur's rotten smell

October 4, 2016

Though odorless in its normal state, utility companies add sulfur-containing odorants - called mercaptans or thiols - to the gas so it's easy to detect a leak. The foul smell is reminiscent of rotting cabbage or spoiled eggs.

Resistive memory components the computer industry can't resist

October 23, 2017

Make way for some new memsistors. For years, the computer industry has sought memory technologies with higher endurance, lower cost, and better energy efficiency than commercial flash memories. Now, an international collaboration ...

Recommended for you

Coffee-based colloids for direct solar absorption

March 22, 2019

Solar energy is one of the most promising resources to help reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to power a sustainable future. Devices presently in use to convert solar energy into thermal ...

EPA adviser is promoting harmful ideas, scientists say

March 22, 2019

The Trump administration's reliance on industry-funded environmental specialists is again coming under fire, this time by researchers who say that Louis Anthony "Tony" Cox Jr., who leads a key Environmental Protection Agency ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.