A Trillion Odors Can Be Detected by Human Smell, Say Scientists

Friday, 21 Mar 2014 08:42 AM

By Nick Sanchez

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Scientists once thought the human nose could only sniff out about 10,000 different odors, but a new study finds that humans can detect more than 1 trillion smells — more than a hundred million times more than previously thought.

Most people tend to barely notice the passive smelling they're constantly engaged in, as humans tend to think of themselves as visual first, auditory second, with touch, taste, and smell ranked much lower, reports Time.

This new discovery shows that despite our focus on the audio/visual, smell might be our most powerful sense, quantitatively speaking, anyway. By comparison, our eyes can see a few million different colors, and our ears can hear about 340,000 tones.

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The conclusion: “We have more sensitivity in our sense of smell than for which we give ourselves credit,” said the study's lead author, Andreas Keller, a research associate at Rockefeller University's Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior. “We just don’t pay attention to it and we don’t use it in everyday life.”

With the idea that "ten thousand is kind of pathetic," fellow Rockefeller molecular biologist Leslie Vosshall and her colleague Keller set off to find the real number. It hadn't been updated since 1927, when two American chemists came up with their own odor classification system based on "fragrant," "burnt," "acid," and "caprylic" (goat-smelling). They said these were the building blocks of all smells.

Creating a test that was similar to a hearing test – in which participants try to discriminate between two competing sounds – the scientists asked 26 subjects to sniff three vials each. Two vials had the same smell, and participants were asked to find the remaining smell that didn't match.

They created the smells using a palette of 128 different odor molecules. The composite odors each used 10, 20, or 30 molecules that smelled of everything from garbage to garlic.

To test people's ability to discriminate smells, the scientists varied the percentage of overlap between the smells, trying to determine at which percentage our noses couldn't discriminate between the two.

It turns out the average person can distinguish one odor from another when the overlap is under 51 percent. No one could discriminate from mixtures that were 90 percent the same or more.

The new research is sure to be exciting to anyone with a nose, and especially fun for food and wine connoisseurs, who may have already had some intuition about the 1 trillion smells that await us.

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