Saturday, March 30, 2013

Riskay Business? Receptors Specialized for Social Smells

Image from Wallrabenstein, et al., 2013

Linda Buck and Richard Axel transformed the study of smell with their Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the mammalian olfactory receptor (OR) genes in 1991. These genes code for a diverse set of cell-surface receptors expressed on the surface of sensory cells in the nose. Receptor diversity enables the detection of a broad array of odor molecules. With as many as 1,500 varieties, the OR gene family is the biggest in the human genome—testimony to the evolutionary importance of odor perception. OR genes create a type of receptor structure that elsewhere in the body figures in the detection of sex hormones and neurotransmitters.

In 2006, Stephen Liberles and Linda Buck found a second class of chemosensory receptors in the nose of humans, mice and fish. It consists of a handful of receptors (six to fifteen, depending on that species) that are structurally unrelated to ORs. Instead, they look like the receptors for biogenic amines, e.g., the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. The new class was dubbed “trace amine-associated receptors” or TAARs because they are exquisitely sensitive to a specific class of molecule—volatile amines—that turns out to be common in mouse urine. Thereby hangs a tale.

Given the affinity of TAARs for the smelly amines in mouse piss, Liberles and Buck speculated that these receptors play a role in social behavior. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds—mice send all sorts of social messages via chemical cues in their urine. This January, Liberles and a team of colleagues advanced the story in much greater detail. They focused on one TAAR receptor which, in an odd resonance for perfume fans, is called TAAR5. It is especially sensitive at detecting trimethylamine (TMA), a molecule famous for having exactly the stink of rotting fish.

But for one enzyme, human urine would also smell of dead fish, since bacteria in our gut turn the choline in food into obnoxious TMA. Thankfully, almost everybody produces the flavin-containing monooxygenase 3 enzyme (FMO3), which chemically converts TMA to a non-smelly molecule. Those few unfortunates born with a defective FMO3 gene suffer from “fish odor syndrome,” and must modify their diet to avoid the stinky stigma.

Meanwhile, male mice have a ton of TMA in their urine while females have almost none. And while the odor of TMA at high levels is aversive to mice, it is attractive to both sexes at the concentrations found in urine. So what’s going on? Liberles et al. found that female mice produce the FMO3 enzyme which keeps TMA out of their pee. Males stop producing FMO3 at puberty and thus have TMA-stinky pee. Genetically controlled production of TMA, coupled with a preference for its odor, seems to occur only in the house mouse Mus musculus and not in other members of the genus Mus or other rodents such as rats. Liberles et al. speculate this synchronous evolution of odor biosynthesis plus behavioral response has something to do with signaling species identity. Research on a variety of rodents species is needed to see if the idea bears out.

In February, Thomas Bozza’s team at Northwestern used a variety of techniques to examine the functional sensory response of TAAR-expressing sensory cells. They conclude that TAARs “serve as high-affinity amine detectors in mammalian olfactory systems.” While TAARs are broadly tuned to detect amines, one in particular (TAAR4) is “exquisitely sensitive” to β-phenylethylamine—so much so that it rivals “the most sensitive mammalian chemosensory neurons yet examined.” And what is β-phenylethylamine? It’s a chemical found in the urine (and therefore scent marks) of carnivorous predators. Not a bad thing to be sensitive to if you’re a prey species like the mouse.

So what of the six human TAARs? Do these receptors make us exquisitely sensitive to TMA or β-phenylethylamine or other biologically relevant amines? Two TAARs are known to be expressed in the human nose. Bozza et al. expressed the human hTAAR5 gene in mouse sensory cells and found that it responds to N,N-dimethylethylamine and somewhat less to TMA.

Finally, also in February, a German team led by Ivonne Wallrabenstein expressed human hTAAR5 in animal cells and measured the receptor’s response to a wide variety of amines (pictured at the top of this post). The human TAAR5 receptor is highly and specifically sensitive to TMA and less so to dimethylethylamine (the two molecules in the shaded portion of the picture). You don’t have to be a specialist to get the gist of the results:

(The big response is TMA; the third response from the left is dimethylethylamine.)

Of what use is a specialized human ability to detect TMA? Wallrabenstein et al. note that besides being found in rotting fish, “TMA arises in rotting male ejaculate and vaginal secretions.” Yes, well . . . there’s that. But is TMA sensitivity simply an evolved reminder to wash after use? My hunch is that it’s more than that—possibly a means of detecting out-of-pair-bond copulation, or what in a less politically correct time we used to refer to as sneaky fucking.
Why u comin home 5 in the mornin
Somethins goin on, can I smell yo dick
                   --Riskay (2007)
Social smell signals, indeed.

The studies discussed here are “A second class of chemosensory receptors in the olfactory epithelium” by Stephen D. Liberles and Linda B. Buck, published in Nature 442:645-650, 2006; “Synchronous evolution of an odor biosynthesis pathway and behavioral response” by Qian Li, Wayne J. Korzan, David M. Ferrero, Rui B. Chang, Dheeraj S. Roy, Mélanie Buchi, Jamie K. Lemon, Angeldeep W. Kaur, Lisa Stowers, Markus Fendt, and Stephen D. Liberles, published in Current Biology 23:11-20, 2013; “Ultrasensitive detection of amines by a trace amine-associated receptor” by Jingji Zhang, Rodrigo Pacifico, Dillon Cawley, Paul Feinstein, and Thomas Bozza, published in Journal of Neuroscience 33:3228-3239, 2013; and “Human trace amine-associated receptor TAAR5 can be activated by trimethylamine,” by Ivonne Wallrabenstein, Jonas Kuklan, Lea Weber, Sandra Zborala, Markus Werner, Janine Altmüller, Christian Becker, Anna Schmidt, Hans Hatt, Thomas Hummel, and Günter Gisselmann, published in PLoS One 8:e54950, 2013.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hey Officer, Do You Have a Light?

Odor-based drug searches by police can raise some complex legal questions. For example, yesterday’s Supreme Court decision tossing out a warrantless dog-sniffing search for marijuana involves such arcane legal concepts as curtilage (an area “immediately surrounding and associated with the home,” such as a porch).

Sometimes, however, it’s an easy call. Like last Tuesday in Totowa, New Jersey, just a ten-minute drive from First Nerve Manor. Three guys were waiting for their friend to pick up his car from the auto impound. While waiting they sparked up a doobie—in the parking lot of the state police barracks. A trooper caught wind of it and busted them for possession of fifteen bags of weed and 14 tabs of Ecstasy. Two of the perps had outstanding arrest warrants.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Supreme Court: Drug-Sniffing Dog on Your Porch Needs a Warrant

Today’s Florida v. Jardines decision in a nutshell (by Kevin Russell at ScotusBlog):
The Court held a dog sniff at the front door of a house where the police suspected drugs where being grown constitutes a search for purposes of the Fourth Amendment.
The case involved a marijuana grow house and the smell in question was that of pot plants, not pot smoke. (FN and WTNK readers understand that the former scent is much more difficult to detect and has been the subject of over-reaching claims by various police departments.)

The case hinges on expectations of privacy in and around one’s home, on whether a drug-sniffing dog is like thermal-imaging technology, and on the Founder’s view of the legal status of scent-tracking dogs.

Interesting split decision: conservative justices Scalia and Thomas joined by liberals Kagen, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor for the majority; conservatives Alito and Roberts joined by liberals Kennedy and Breyer in dissent.

Dog owner and constitutional law prof Ann Althouse finds Alito’s opinion more “dog positive.”

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Olfactory Muse Kicks Your Ass

Rick Florino, EIC of, asks Dead Sara singer Emily Armstrong about the story behind the group’s song Lemon Scent:
It’s got its own story. “Lemon Scent” was the last song to be added to the record. I literally had started off with “Lemon Scent”. It didn’t make any sense with the lyrics I was throwing in there. Then, I thought, “Oh, ‘Lemon Scent’, I used to be a cleaner in Los Angeles”. I did house cleaning and stuff. Being a house cleaner in L.A. at my age, people are like, “You’re lower class”. In L.A., there are people who think there’s a certain status quo you need to reach in order to live in L.A. Being from here, it really pisses me off that people think that way. My love-hate relationship with people that are not necessarily from here but come here thinking they’ve got to be a certain way snowballed from that point. You have to have the right car. It’s not very fun. “Lemon Scent” has a lot of those elements of what people think of L.A. and what they think they have to be. Being born and raised and here, we’re like, “That’s not how it is”. A friend of ours came up with the video concept. We just went for it, and it was awesome. It’s our first conceptual video.
OK, then!

Here’s a snippet of the lyrics for those of you trapped in your work cube, and here’s the video link for the rest of you. Play it loud.
You’re not cut out for this
You’ve got that lemon scent
F*** your instincts, everything you do is for somebody else
You’re my breakdown
Your skin like lemon scent
 I just don’t fade well.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Inferno of Odors: A Literary Smellscape

I’ve been re-reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, which he calls An Autobiography Revisited. It’s a memoir of his boyhood in Tsarist Russia and his later émigré ramblings through Europe until his departure for America in 1940. But it is also about the realm of memory, the patterns of life, and how one places oneself in the web of experience.

Nabokov’s prose is precise yet inventive and evocative—enhanced by his natural tendency toward synesthesia. He is also a keen olfactory observer; I quoted him on the scent of butterflies in WTNK.

What caught my attention this time was his description of the Grunewald park in Berlin where he and his wife would stroll with their young son. This would have been sometime between 1934 and 1937. It is remarkable because it is an outdoors smellscape that involves BO:
“And nearer to the lake, in summer, especially on Sundays, the place was infested with human bodies in various stages of nudity and solarization. Only the squirrels and certain caterpillars kept their coats on. Gray-footed goodwives sat on greasy gray sand in their slips; repulsive, seal-voiced males, in muddy swimming trunks, gamboled around; remarkably comely but poorly groomed girls, destined to bear a few years later—early in 1946, to be exact—a sudden crop of infants with Turkic or Mongol blood in their innocent veins, were chased and slapped on the rear (whereupon they would cry out, “Ow-wow!”); and the exhalations coming from these unfortunate frolickers, and their shed clothes (neatly spread out here and there on the ground) mingled with the stench of stagnant water to form an inferno of odors that, somehow, I have never found duplicated anywhere else.”

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Do You Have Stress Breath?

What’s more remarkable? That a pilot study published in the Journal of Breath Research claims to find odorous markers of stress, or that there is a scientific periodical called the Journal of Breath Research?

At any rate, the putative markers are indole and 2-methylpentadecane. You can download a copy here.

Exit question: How long before someone trains service dogs that alert to bad breath?

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Perfume Lover: Denyse Beaulieu in Greenwich Village

The U.S. edition of Denyse Beaulieu’s The Perfume Lover will be released tomorrow. (I blurbed it!) You can get it on Amazon, or better yet buy one in person this Friday and have Denyse sign it for you. The book signing is at the Aedes de Venustas store in Greenwich Village and runs from 4:00 to 8:00 p.m. (I’ll be there!) You’ll also get to smell Séville à l’aube, the perfume at the center of the story.

Also recommended: this CBC interview in which Denyse covers everything from new EU fragrance regs to the history of perfume.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Can You Trademark the Peppermint Scent of a Drug?

A recently decided case has some fascinating implications for anyone attempting to register scent or flavor as a trademark.

The case is In re Pohl-Boskamp GmbH & Co. KG, and it was issued on February 25, 2013 by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The ruling itself can be found here.

The product in question is Pohl-Boskamp’s Nitrolingual Pumpspray, a device that delivers a peppermint infused spritz of nitroglycerin beneath the user’s tongue. (Sublingual nitroglycerin is a vasodilator that eases the angina associated with coronary artery disease.) The company tried to trademark the peppermint scent/flavor of its product and was denied by the trademark examiner. They appealed and the new ruling—a final denial—is the result.

It is well established that smells can be trademarked in the United States (the EU is another story). So what was the problem with granting a mark to Pohl-Boskamp? Turns out it was two-fold.

First, trademarks can’t be functional. Back in 1924, the Supreme Court ruled that a chocolate flavor added to a pharmaceutical couldn’t be trademarked because it had the functional effect of masking the bitter taste of the medicine. A trademark must be an inessential, incidental feature of the product that serves only to identify the goods in question.

OK, but Pohl-Boskamp never claimed that the peppermint in its product was functional. Yes, said the trademark examiner, but I found a patent that claims peppermint and other menthol-containing substances are vasodilators that enhance the effect of nitroglycerin. (USPTO rules allow third-party patents to be cited in administrative proceedings . . . who knew?) Therefore, said the examiner, the peppermint is functional and can’t be trademarked.

As if that weren’t good enough, the TTAB supplied a second reason. It found that there are other, similarly scented, vasodilators currently on the market. Thus the peppermint is not sufficiently distinctive to qualify as a trademark.

It seems to me that this decision by the TTAB adheres closely to previous interpretations of trademark law and doesn’t do much to further restrict the use of scent/flavor in trademark.

P.S. I found this summary of the case by the intellectual property law firm Mandour & Associates to be quite helpful.

P.P.S. The Mandour & Associates article was reprinted word for word, without attribution, by China Trademark & Patent Law Office, “a professional intellectual property service firm” headquartered in China. What else do you need to know about communist China’s respect for intellectual property?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Old Spice Marketing: Wolfdog or Just a Dog?

An embarrassing bit of sponsor-slobbering from HLN—you know, CNN’s dumber, less tasteful, corporate sibling.
Whoever’s in charge of marketing at Old Spice headquarters gets it, and it’s working. Oh, wait. A dog is in charge. Giggle your way to the body wash aisle, why don’t you?
HLN’s Colette Bennett is talking about spoofy spokescanine Mr. Wolfdog. She predicts he’ll achieve internet fame within a week. Really? See what you think.

Personally, I find the spot too long, too slow, and just not funny. Compare it to 30 sec. of the epic Old Spice Guy. Hell, compare it to E*Trade’s talking baby.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

ISDP: Close But No Cigar

Despite the prophecies of the Goracle, it’s been a cold damned winter hereabouts. How cold is it? Well, last month we came up empty. And this month looks pretty bleak as well.

Normally, we’d be all over a story like this: smell leads to the discovery of human body parts in a garbage bag on a Bronx street. The remains were those of a 45-year old woman thought to have been murdered and dismembered by her own son. However, the fact that her remains were sniffed out by Nana, “a 10-year-old boxer-pit bull mix,” rather than by the guy at the other end of the leash, means the incident doesn’t qualify as a bona fide ISDP event. Sorry, but we have strict editorial guidelines and that’s that.

Our second candidate case comes from the Cecil Hotel, located near skid row in downtown Los Angeles. After residents complained about low water pressure and “funny” tasting tap water, hotel management sent a maintenance worker to check out the water tanks on the roof. According to one account,
he made a gruesome discovery: the body of a young woman, lying at the bottom of the tank. The body was soon identified as that of 21-year-old Elisa Lam, a Canadian student, who had been missing for three weeks. The cause of death, said LAPD Sergeant Rudy Lopez, remained uncertain. Foul play had not been ruled out, nor had the possibility of “a very, very strange accident”
We think Sergeant Lopez has a firm grip on the forensic difficulties of the case. What leaves us puzzled is whether this is a legit ISDP item. We could call it I Taste Dead People but that would blur our brand identity. We considered submitting the incident to the judgment of the ISDP ombudsman, but we never got around to hiring one. We interviewed one guy who looked promising until he started rambling on about the Vibration Theory of Olfaction. The topper was he wanted us to pay his relocation expenses—from Greece! Get real, dude.

We hate to disappoint our loyal readers, so as sort of a lagniappe we offer a link to Metalunderground, where you can listen to the new album by Spanish band “Scent Of Death.” Here’s a snippet from their press release:
“The Spaniards have been doing their thing for a long time and it shows as they blast with the same brutal intensity and technical dexterity as bands like Immolation, Origin, Morbid Angel and Behemoth. This is some serious death metal that will surely appeal to all fans of intense and downright brutal extreme music.”
Brutal intensity and technical dexterity—that’s our new ISDP motto!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

When Olfactory Artists Attack

By now we’ve all seen the picture of Lernert Engelberts and Sander Plug standing next to the thousand-plus dram samples of perfume—all released in 2012—that they dumped into a single flask and labeled “Everything.” It’s art, at least as currently defined.

It’s also troubling for anyone who loves perfume.

The New York Times, ever anxious to be seen as hip, gives this pair of Dutch putzes exactly the supportive exposure they’re after (fragrance advertisers be damned). The headline—“When Everything Smells Bad”—is a typically elephantine Timesian attempt to be cute. [“Everything,” get it?]

Even the photo caption—“The masks are to protect their noses, not their identities.”—is a gratuitous effort to play along with the stunt: the DPs are wearing dust masks which don’t do a bit of good protecting against smells.

As if the point of childishly mixing 1,400 perfume samples together isn’t clear enough, the Times hastens to spell it out for you:
“Our point is, why do you need nearly 1,400 new scents in one year?” Mr. Engelberts said, using a figure cited by Basenotes, an online fragrance forum.
One can almost hear tongues clucking all over the Upper West Side: “So wasteful!” “Marketing run amuck!” “Greedy capitalists!” Really? Try it on with products favored on the UWS:
“Our point is, why do you need nearly ten new Volvos in one year?”

 “Our point is, why do you need nearly 100 new artisanal organic goat cheeses in one year?”

“Our point is, why do you need nearly 350 new pinot noirs in one year?”
My point is, why do we need another trivial Marxist cultural critique masquerading as art?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Dolce & Gabbana Go to a Sex Therapist

“If a fragrance is announcing desire, what it’s doing is altering you to pay attention to the potential, for inviting you to experience aspects of your desire.”
Does this make any sense, grammatically or otherwise?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Go Rimbaud

In the NY Observer, Nate Freeman interviews the author of I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, the new memoir by Richard Hell. (Yes, as in Richard Hell and the Voidoids.) From the quoted passages Hell sounds like a smell-aware writer.

In the mid-Sixties he hitchhiked his way to Florida with Tom Verlaine:
“We didn’t know anybody there,” he writes, “or know anything about the place except that it was warm and airy, and there was plenty of citrus fruit and seafood, and girls who smelled like suntan and had little particles of sand on them here and there, including inside the waistbands of their panties.”
Then there’s this bit about CBGB:
The birthplace of punk was a garbage dump. In an unpublished column he wrote during the club’s formative years that is included in Tramp, Mr. Hell says, “the first thing I noticed is that it smelled like dogshit. Then I saw the damned dog.”
Good times.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Blaming the Methane: Los Angeles Edition

Methane is an odorless gas. It is also hazardous at high concentrations. This is why the gas company adds a stinky blend of mercaptans to it as a warning agent. Simple, right? Unless you are a TV reporter or Santa Monica Fire Department spokesman, that is.

A sulfurous stink rose in Los Angeles over the weekend and the usual clown riot ensued. Here’s the headline from KNBC-TV:
Ocean Stink Prompts Flood of 911 Calls
And here’s the lede: “Methane gas from the sea floor caused a foul odor on Sunday . . .”

I don’t blame coastal resident Maria Carlito Covarrubias for posting on Facebook about a possible gas leak, nor Summers McKay for calling her building manager with the same worry. Like everyone else, they’ve been drilled since childhood to identify mercaptans with natural gas. And public safety-wise that’s a good thing.

But reporters (yes, Sharon Bernstein and Heather Navarro, I’m talking about you) ought to know that methane is odorless and the stink is artificial. And first responders (Justin Walker of the Santa Monica Fire Department, I’m talking about you) should be clear on the concept.

When he talks about tectonic plates and sea floor ruptures, Mr. Walker could simply point out that regardless of methane content geologically vented gases often smell sulfurous (fumaroles, mud pots, hot springs, etc.).

Adding to the confusion is this KNBC subhead: “The smell may not have been the result of a natural process in the ocean as originally thought.” Huh? So was it a utility gas leak after all? Something extraterrestrial, perhaps? Or did the copy desk just stick that in?


UPDATE March 4, 2013

One and a half cheers for KABC-TV which gets it mostly right:
SANTA MONICA, Calif. (KABC) — Air quality officials said methane gas [d’oh!] or stinky algae were the likely sources of Sunday's foul odor across the Southland.

Technicians with the South Coast Air Quality Control District said they believe the stink is an ocean-based natural occurrence blowing ashore from the Santa Monica Bay.

Santa Monica hazmat crews found unusual concentrations of odorless methane gas
[yessssss!] in the air.

Officials believe either a pocket of stinky algae, or a bubble of methane laced with sulfurous gas, surfaced in the ocean.
[There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?]
Meanwhile, the L.A. Times blog quotes S.M.F.D.’s hapless Justin Walker:
Recent shifts in water temperature might have caused plankton and algae beds to bloom, releasing methane just under the surface, Walker said. The gas also might have been produced by a geologic event, such as a shift in tectonic plates, he said.
Or, to quote Zed: “Swamp gas from a weather balloon was trapped in a thermal pocket and reflected the light from Venus.”