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Chemists Discover Way Nose Perceives Common Class of Odors


Biologists claim that humans can perceive and distinguish a trillion different odors, but little is known about the underlying chemical processes involved. Biochemists at The City College of New York have found an unexpected chemical strategy employed by the mammalian nose to detect chemicals known as aldehydes.

According to a team led by CCNY Associate Professor of Chemistry Kevin Ryan and Columbia biologist Stuart Firestein, some of the nose's many aldehyde receptors don't detect the aldehyde by its structure and shape directly. Rather, the aldehyde is recognized by its ability to undergo a chemical reaction with water, likely after entering the nose.

Image shows the mouse aldehyde receptor OR-I7 as a homology model with the gem-diol form of octanal. The chemical structures surrounding the receptor depict some of those used in the study.

Odorant receptors make up a large family of cell membrane proteins that monitor inhaled air on neurons within the nose. Aldehydes, meanwhile, are found in a variety of natural sources like herbs, flowers and fruit. They are typically fresh-smelling chemicals, and synthetic aldehydes are important to the flavor and fragrance industry.

"Once exposed to air, aldehydes have a limited lifetime as oxygen slowly converts them into less savory, even malodorous chemicals," said Professor Ryan. "It's not surprising then that the nose is adept at detecting aldehydes, and distinguishing them from structurally similar chemical groups."

His team found that for some receptors it's the aldehyde's chemical reactivity, not its inherent shape, that tells the nose there are aldehydes in the air.  

In our experiments, some of the many odorant receptors that detected the eight-carbon aldehyde octanal recognized the aldehyde portion of the molecule by its ability to morph into a completely different chemical group, known as a gem-diol," he added. "Since this reaction is unique to aldehydes, it serves as a means to discriminate them from similarly shaped chemical groups."

Researchers from Duke University and Hebrew University in Israel were also involved in the study. The research at CCNY was funded by U.S. Army Research Laboratory and Office. The results will be published in the journal "ACS Chemical Biology."

About The City College of New York
Since 1847, The City College of New York has provided low-cost, high-quality education for New Yorkers in a wide variety of disciplines. More than 16,000 students pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in: the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture; the School of Education; the Grove School of Engineering; the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education, and the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership. U.S. News, Princeton Review and Forbes all rank City College among the best colleges and universities in the United States.  

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