In Insight, People

Humans have the innate ability to discriminate between countless odors. Whether it’s the comforting scent of a campfire, the awakening scent of fresh coffee in the morning, or the warning scent of spoiled food, our sense of smell supports us throughout our day in many different ways. Many scientists argue over how exactly this is possible, and the conversation has become quite controversial in the scientific realm. reports Eric Block and colleagues are “shifting the debate. Based on our experiments, we conclude that the chemical mechanism is the correct one and the vibrational theory of olfaction is implausible.” Read below for the key points of their study:

  • “The mainstream mechanism vying for consideration is chemical. Often referred to as the shape theory of olfaction, it proposes that attractive and repulsive interactions between molecules come into play when an odorant interacts with its receptor in the nose—ultimately triggering perception of the smell.”
  • “The alternative mechanism is called the vibrational theory of olfaction. It assumes that transfer of an electron occurs when odorants bind with their receptors. This process is thought to occur when olfactory receptors detect odorant molecular vibrations.”
  • “Given the differences in the smell reported for the musk isotopomers, my coworkers and I asked whether olfactory receptors highly responsive to musks could also distinguish musk isotopomers.”
  • “My coworkers and I found no receptor that discriminates between isotopomers. We therefore argue that the vibrational theory of olfaction is implausible. If the receptors weren’t responding to shape but to electron transfer, we should have been able to observe that in the form of a different receptor response between the pairs of isotopomers.”

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Photo: Ruslan Zh via Unsplash

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