Nose Doesn't Smell Like The Eyes See, Study

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Nose and Smell

Johns Hopkins scientists have uncovered new details of how smelly things create signals in the nose that eventually go to the brain. The findings raise issues about how the process involved has been described for many years in biology textbooks.

The textbooks say that our sense of smell converts odors into brain signals just like our vision converts light into brain signals. But the new work shows that while a key protein pathway is used in both, it behaves quite differently in the nose than it does in the eye. The researchers' findings are published in the June 24 issue of Science.

"Most of the information about this pathway comes from studies of vision, and people just assumed it worked the same way elsewhere in the body," says King-Wai Yau, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience in Johns Hopkins' Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences. "But instead of being a model for other systems in the body, our visual system is probably pretty unique."

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At issue is the behavior of a huge family of proteins called G-protein-coupled receptors. When activated by light in the eye or a molecule in other settings, each G-protein-coupled receptor uses a similar switch, the exchange of a tiny bit called GTP for a related bit called GDP on the aptly named G-protein, to trigger the cell's response.

Since about 1980, scientists studying vision have understood that light activates a specific G-protein-coupled receptor (the light-detecting molecule rhodopsin) in cells called rods found at the back of the eye. They also know that, once activated by light, this particular receptor stays activated long enough to trigger the GTP-to-GDP switch on a large number of G-protein molecules, substantially amplifying the incoming signal.

"Because of this amplification, rods are extremely sensitive to light," says Yau. "Each cell is capable of signaling the absorption of a single unit, or photon, of light."

Because G-protein signaling is so well understood in the eye, Yau says that scientists just assumed that it would amplify signals in other systems and cells where it's important. Indeed, some scientists have claimed that G-protein-coupled receptors involved in detecting odors have similar amplification abilities and that, as a result, a single stinky molecule would produce a signal in odor-detecting cells as large as a single unit of light does in rods.

Trouble is, that conclusion has turned out to be wrong.

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