A new study of the sense of smell lends support to a controversial theory of olfaction: Our noses can distinguish both the shape and the vibrational characteristics of odorant molecules.
The study, in the journal Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics, demonstrates the feasibility of the theory – first proposed decades ago – that the vibration of an odorant molecule’s chemical bonds – the wagging, stretching and rocking of the links between atoms – contributes to our ability to distinguish one smelly thing from another.
“The theory goes that when the right odorant binds to its receptor, the odorant’s molecular vibration allows electrons to transfer from one part of the receptor to another,” said University of Illinois physics and Beckman Institute professor Klaus Schulten, who conducted the analysis with postdoctoral researcher Ilia Solov’yov and graduate student Po-Yao Chang. “This electron transfer appears to fine-tune the signal the receptor receives.”
(Watch a video about the research.)