Your Nose Isn’t The Only Organ That Can Smell
April 8, 2013

Can Your Blood Cells Smell?

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

The nose is a highly specialized organ, and for years it has been assumed that it is the only part of the human body which is finely attuned to receiving and process odors.

However, a new study presented at 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans reported that heart, blood, lung and other cells have the same receptors for sensing odors that are present in the nose.

"Our team recently discovered that blood cells — not only cells in the nose — have odorant receptors," said the study´s lead researcher Peter Schieberle, director of the German Research Center for Food Chemistry.

"In the nose, these so-called receptors sense substances called odorants and translate them into an aroma that we interpret as pleasing or not pleasing in the brain,” he continued. “But surprisingly, there is growing evidence that also the heart, the lungs and many other non-olfactory organs have these receptors. And once a food is eaten, its components move from the stomach into the bloodstream.”

“But does this mean that, for instance, the heart 'smells' the steak you just ate? We don't know the answer to that question,” Schieberle said.

According to the food chemistry expert and his team, primary blood cells that were isolated from blood samples in their research are attracted to odorant molecules that produce a certain smell. In one experiment, scientists put an attractant odorant on one side of a partitioned chamber and blood cells on the other side. The team then watched as the blood cells moved toward the odor molecules.

"Once odor components are inside the body, however, it is unclear whether they are functioning in the same way as they do in the nose," Schieberle said. "But we would like to find out."

The work presented at the meeting in New Orleans is a part of the scientist´s continuing work in the field of “sensomics,” which is focused on the biochemical mechanics behind how the nose and mouth detect and process aromas.

Sensomics researchers work to deconstruct a particular food´s odor into individual compounds and then reconstruct these compounds into new unique arrangements. Recent studies have shown that coffee contains 1,000 potential odor components. However, only 25 of these components actually bind with odor receptors in the nose and are perceived.

"Receptors help us sense flavors and aromas in the mouth and nose," said Schieberle. "These receptors are called G-protein-coupled receptors, and they were the topic of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2012. They translate these sensations into a perception in the brain telling us about the qualities of a food."

About 800 of the 1,000 receptors in the human body are G-protein-coupled receptors, according to Schieberle. While approximately half of these G-protein-coupled receptors sense and translate aromas, only 27 taste receptors exist.

Research and development scientists in the food industry are constantly working to identify food components. The latest study by Schieberle and his German colleagues is groundbreaking in that it focused on associating those components to actual flavor perceptions.