Discovery of how humans experience the smell of death could save lives

phys.org | 2/19/2018 | Staff
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Edvard Munch's "The Smell of Death."

"And the sky was watching that superb cadaver

Blossom - Flower

Blossom like a flower.

So frightful was the stench that you believed

Grass

You'd faint away upon the grass.

The blow-flies were buzzing round that putrid belly,

Battalions

From which came forth black battalions

Of maggots, which oozed out like a heavy liquid

Tatters

All along those living tatters."

This poem was written by Charles Baudelaire in 1857, when scientists didn't really know what the smell of death was. Perhaps Baudelaire's morbid curiosity inspired the work of the German physician Ludwig Brieger, who a couple of decades later for the first time described the main chemical compounds responsible for the "rotting flesh" smell – a mix putrescine and cadaverine.

Humans - Terrifying - Smell - Study - PLOS

But how do humans actually sense this terrifying smell? Our new study, published in PLOS Computational Biology, has now uncovered the biochemical details. Bizarrely, the findings may be able to help treat major mood disorders such as depression.

In recent years, the smell of death has become an important topic of investigation due to its potential of being used as a forensic tool. Its exact composition and intensity could help in distinguishing human from animal remains – and even determining the time of death. Such information could be used when training human remains detection dogs.

Sense - Smell - Relies - Detection - Molecules

Our sense of smell relies on the detection of airborne molecules. Proteins belonging to a large family – G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) – do this by sensing molecules outside the cell and activating physiological responses. This includes not only smell, but also vision, taste and the regulation of behaviour and mood.

The interaction these proteins have with the outside world makes them major targets for drug development – around one-third of currently available drugs were designed to interact with them. Among the 800 human GPCRs, more than 100 are classified as...
(Excerpt) Read more at: phys.org
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