Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Metal ions may play big role in how we sense smells


Of the five basic senses, the sense of smell is the least understood. Now, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have sniffed out potential clues to how olfactory receptors in the nose detect odors. Those clues may also explain why dietary zinc deficiencies lead to a loss of smell.

Olfactory receptors are proteins that bridge through the cell membrane. Professor Kenneth S. Suslick and co-workers have found that the structure of the protein changes dramatically when a zinc or copper ion binds to it. They propose that the olfactory response to an odorant involves this change in structure that pushes and pulls part of the olfactory receptor protein into and out of the cell in a "shuttlecock" motion. This back-and-forth motion passes information through the cell membrane. The researchers will report their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A paper on the subject is to appear in the PNAS Online Early Edition the week of Feb. 24.

The average human nose can detect nearly 10,000 distinct scents, a feat that requires about 1,000 olfactory genes, or roughly 3 percent of the human genome.

"It seems surprising that such a large percentage of our genome is dedicated to the olfactory system," said Suslick, a William H. and Janet Lycan Professor of Chemistry at Illinois. "Being visually oriented and olfactorily impaired, we tend to overlook our sense of smell. But other mammals, like dogs and rats, live or die by their sense of smell."

Knowing that molecules that bind strongly to metal ions usually smell strongly (and often badly), Suslick and his colleagues -- chemistry professor Zaida A. Luthey-Schulten and doctoral student Jiangyun Wang -- investigated the possibility that olfactory receptors are metalloproteins (proteins that contain a metal ion as part of their structure).

Inorganic chemists have long suspected that the olfactory system involved metal ions. Only recently, however, have the genes responsible for smell been identified. "When we searched the genome data, we found an identical site in more than 75 percent of the olfactory receptors that looks like it can bind to metal ions very strongly," Suslick said.

The structure of these receptors is thought to be a protein that weaves in and out of the cell membrane seven times. Between the fourth and fifth helices, the scientists found an uncommonly long loop that they suspected contained the binding site for a metal ion.

To test their theory, the researchers created synthetic peptide analogs of the potential binding site in the receptor protein. As predicted, metal ions -- particularly zinc and copper -- were bound very strongly.

The researchers then used computer models to study the behavior of olfactory receptors upon odorant binding. "Computer simulations initially put this big loop outside the cell membrane because the loop is negatively charged," Suslick said. "When a positively charged metal ion binds to the site, however, the loopÕs charge is neutralized, so the computer places the loop in the membrane."

When the long loop containing the metal ion slides into the cell membrane, a portion of the receptor protein’s fourth helix is pushed outside the membrane, Suslick said. When an odorant binds to the metal ion, the loop is ejected from the membrane, and the fourth helix is dragged back in, triggering a sequence of events leading to nerve cell activity. Then, when the odorant leaves the metal ion, the process can start over.

This back and forth movement of the protein, which the researchers refer to as a shuttlecock motion, may be a new mechanism for passing information through cell membranes.

"Another piece to this puzzle is that one of the first symptoms of dietary zinc deficiency is loss of the sense of smell," Suslick said. "That, too, is keeping with this idea that the olfactory receptors are metalloproteins."

James E. Kloeppel | UIUC
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Novel mechanisms of action discovered for the skin cancer medication Imiquimod
21.10.2016 | Technische Universität München

nachricht Second research flight into zero gravity
21.10.2016 | Universität Zürich

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>