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Smell the Quantum Vibrations

Physicists check out a bold hypothesis for how the nose works

Most scientists have assumed that our sense of smell depends on receptors in the nose detecting the shape of incoming molecules, which triggers a signal to the brain. This molecular 'lock and key' process is thought to lie behind a wide range of the body's detection systems: it is how some parts of the immune system recognise invaders, for example, and how the tongue recognizes some tastes.

But Turin argued that smell doesn't seem to fit this picture very well. Molecules that look almost identical can smell very different such as alcohols, which smell like spirits, and thiols, which smell like rotten eggs. And molecules with very different structures can smell similar. Most strikingly, some molecules can smell different to animals, if not necessarily to humans simply because they contain different isotopes (atoms that are chemically identical but have a different mass).

Turin's explanation for these smelly facts invokes the idea that the smell signal in olfactory receptor proteins is triggered not by an odour molecule's shape, but by its vibrations, which can enourage an electron to jump between two parts of the receptor in a quantum-mechanical process called tunnelling. This electron movement could initiate the smell signal being sent to the brain.

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Tags : brain smell quantum
Posted on: 2006-12-13 13:16:35