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.
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