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Why Some People Can Smell Better Than Others: The Genetic Basis of Odor Sensitivity

11 Mar 2023
Why Some People Can Smell Better Than Others: The Genetic Basis of Odor Sensitivity

Odor is a complex phenomenon that plays a crucial role in our lives, influencing our behaviors and emotions. It is a sensory experience that results from the interaction of an organic substance with the olfactory receptors in our nostrils. This interaction is influenced by many factors, such as the composition of the substance, its volatility, and the number and type of olfactory receptors of each individual.

The olfaction process starts when odorant substances are transported through the air and reach the olfactory epithelium. The olfactory epithelium contains between 20 and 30 million receptor cells that, when activated, transmit the signal to the cerebral cortex and, from there, to the limbic system and hippocampus. This is where olfactory memory is established, and memories are associated with certain odors.

It is estimated that humans have the ability to differentiate up to ten thousand different odors, but most of us will only perceive a fraction of them in our lifetime. The description of an odor often varies from person to person, and olfactory perception is influenced by cultural, emotional, and physiological aspects.

One of the best-known odorant compounds is ionones, which are natural compounds found in the scent of flowers. They serve as an attractant to pollinating insects and are widely used in perfumery and as food flavorings. However, the ability to determine the presence of b-ionone compounds is strongly conditioned by genetics.

Several studies have determined that the major region of genetic association for b-ionone sensitivity is located on human chromosome 11, in the OR5A1 gene. This gene is responsible for producing the olfactory receptor 5A1 that initiates a neuronal response, triggering odor perception. Individuals carrying genotypes for b-ionone can more easily differentiate between olfactory stimuli and foods and beverages with and without added b-ionone. This response associated with the genotypes of the marker found in the OR5A1 gene was confirmed in 96% of the individuals who participated in the study conducted.

In conclusion, odor perception is a fascinating and complex process that involves multiple factors, including genetics. The ability to detect certain odorant compounds is strongly influenced by our genetic makeup, and this has important implications for industries such as perfumery and food flavorings. Understanding the genetic basis of odor perception can lead to the development of more personalized and effective products that cater to individual preferences and needs.

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