The vibrational theory of olfaction for the win

As occurred in the painstaking deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs, adherence to outmoded ideas is a lasting impediment to our understanding of how odorants are decoded by the olfactory system. The primary roadblock for hieroglyphs was the insistence that they were purely ideographic, ie. that the shapes of the pictograms owned all their meaning. It was only after Thomas Young compared the three different scripts of the Rosetta Stone that he was able to discover that the hieroglyphs also had a corresponding physics—namely, that they had phonetics.

In other words, it was the relationships found among the previously unappreciated vibrational characters of the spoken glyphs that led to their eventual successful decoding. Using Young’s phonetic foundation, Jean-Francois Champollion theorized that there should be instances where certain sounds, like that of the letter ‘t’, come to be represented by more than one hieroglyph, much like our own ‘c’ and ‘k’. What finally convinced the world that it must be so began with a key sound element that Champollion fortuitously discovered in the glyphs for both Ptolemy and Cleopatra.

Luca Turin has almost single-handedly created the field of olfactory molecular vibrations. Functional groups of sulfur and borane were his Ptolemy and Cleopatra. The common note shared by two very differently shaped odorants containing these molecules was one particular stretch vibration occurring at a frequency of roughly 2600 cm-1. With this first key, originally pointed out in 1912, Turin has begun to unlock a whole codex of scents. His latest work, just published with Makis Skoulakis and Klio Maniati from the Fleming Institute and University of Athens in the journal eNeuro, is a game changer in the vibration story.

I say “game changer” because traditionally, one way for budding researchers to get ahead in the shapist-dominated field of olfaction has been to take take a potshot at Turin’s theories. Often this has been under the auspices of dubious peer review and editorial standards. As with many things these days, the typical result is that #fakenews headlines like ‘Vibration Theory is Totally Implausible’ get the prime airtime but only rarely does the rebuttal.

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Source: Medical Xpress

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