Scientists unravel how nose differentiates smell

Scientists have successfully unravelled how the nose — our olfactory organ, with 350 different types of receptors — can identify similar or different odours.

“The receptor is like a door lock which can only be opened by the right key,” said Lian Gelis, cell physiologist at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) in Germany.

Using computer simulations, the RUB team was able to predict whether odorant (smell) molecules activate a certain receptor or not.

“A dream of science and industry is coming true,” said smell expert Hanns Hatt, Gelis’s counterpart, the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition reported.

To solve the puzzle, Steffen Wolf and Klaus Gerwert, professors of biophysics at RUB set out by creating a computer model of the human olfactory receptor for the smell of apricots, according to a university statement.

In the model, they wanted to ascertain whether these receptors bind apricot fragrance or not. Gelis und Hatt then verified them by using imaging on the receptors.

In this way, the researchers showed how the binding site has to be structurally constituted so that only the apricot fragrance activates its receptor.

“It’s like a tango, where the female dancer constantly separates from her partner and joins him again at another point” explained Gerwert.

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