Making scents of molecules


In today’s issue of The New Yorker, John Lancaster reviews a new book called Perfumes: The Guide, by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez.

Olfaction (the sense of smell) is, as Lancaster notes, “a profound mystery”. Why is it, for example, that two aromatic molecules with almost identical structures can smell completely different from each other?

Take this molecule, R-carvone, which smells of spearmint (and also elicits a cooling sensation, because it binds to, and activates the “cold” receptor TRPM8). It is one of two enantiomers, or mirror images, of the carvone molecule.

S-carvone is chemically and physically identical to R-carvone. But, like your left and right hands, the two cannot be superimposed; they rotate plane polarized light by an equal amount, but in opposite directions; and, while R-carvone smells of spearmint, S-carvone smells of caraway.

According to Turin (who was one of my tutors when I studied neuroscience as an undergraduate), these two molecules, and other pairs with similar structures, smell differently because of quantum tunnelling effects in olfactory receptors.


  1. #1 Homer
    March 15, 2008

    Keller and Vosshall (A psychophysical test of the vibration theory of olfaction.Nat Neurosci. 2004) made the most direct test of Turin’s tunneling hypothesis that I am aware of and it doesn’t hold up. Lock-and-key, ligands and receptors still seem the most sensible and well supported view of how olfaction works at the periphery. The odor features extracted in this way are then put together into odor objects in the central olfactory pathways (e.g., Wilson & Stevenson, Learning to Smell, Johns Hopkins Press, 2006 –