MIND
January 10, 2014

You Smell...Unique

No two people smell the same scent the same way. The difference lies in the cocktail of amino acids your genes produce.

Have you ever wondered why one person likes the taste and smell of a certain “stinky” cheese, while another person can’t stand it? Or why your significant other loves the smell of your cologne, while your best friend finds it unpleasant?

The new research suggests that the sense of smell is unique to each individual. The Duke University School of Medicine scientists found that no two people smell the same odor exactly the same way.

When we sense an odor — good or bad — a precise set of receptors in the tissues of our nose is activated. The receptors send their signals to the brain.

The difference in sense of smell between people, the scientists claim, may be as small as the level of a single amino acid, the building blocks for all proteins.

In the nose, amino acids make up the structure of odor receptors, which recognize particular odors and transmit a signal to the brain. This signal is critical for your brain to distinguish between freshly picked flowers and your moldy leftover casserole in the fridge.

People perceiving the same odor, whether it's pizza or chocolate or freshly-mowed grass, will have slightly different sets of receptors activated and therefore experience the odor in sometimes vastly different ways.

The variation of odor receptors is staggering. There are approximately 400 genes that carry the amino acids for odor receptors in the human nose, creating over 900,000 known variations, making odorant receptors one of the most diverse systems in the human body.

The same odor receptor in two different people will be approximately 30 percent different, the team found. This means that people perceiving the same odor, whether it's pizza or chocolate or freshly-mowed grass, will have slightly different sets of receptors activated and therefore experience the odor in sometimes vastly different ways.

“There are many cases when you say you like the way something smells and other people don't. That's very common,” said Hiroaki Matsunami, associate professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at Duke and senior author of the research in a statement. “We found that individuals can be very different at the receptor levels.”

The findings may one day have a large impact on the food and flavor industries, according to Matsunami. People’s flavor preferences are affected by a variety of factors, including smell.

Who knows? Maybe there's a way to make steamed vegetables smell — and taste — like French fries.

This study is published in Nature Neuroscience.

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