Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Smell Dreams: Squeezing Data from Comments

One of my earliest posts on FirstNerve was about smell in dreams, a topic that captured my interest when I was researching WTNK but that didn’t make it into the book. That post, which went up in October, 2008, is the top-rated Google search return for “smell in a dream,” and it is one of the most frequently visited items on FN.

Over the years commenter have left reports of smell dreams. In the spirit of crowd-sourced participatory science (free data!), I decided to analyze the material.

Of the 20 commenters who reported smelly dreams, 11 were women, 3 were men, and 6 didn’t say. The 79% female bias in olfactory dream reports fits pretty well with the formal studies I describe in the post.

Here’s a list of the 23 smells that were mentioned, grouped by theme:
lit match
campfire smoke
burning wood
burning smell
burning tortilla
burnt toast

brewing coffee
alcohol (i.e., booze)
baking smell

shit (long-haired hippie)
cat urine
dog feces

Old Spice
menthol/Vick’s VapoRub

various trees, bushes and flowers
white gardenia

[vague smell of fear]

The biggest group is smoke/burning; it accounts for 30% of the total. (In the 2004 study by Stevenson & Case, the proportion was 21%.)

Food and drink were 17% of the comment total; Stevenson & Case found that roughly half of all dream smells involved food. So food looks underrepresented in the FN sample.

Human and animal body odors also scored 17% on FN; this is close to the 21% reported by Stevenson & Case.

Overall, I’d say the FN dream smells look pretty reasonable for a totally haphazard, self-selected internet sample. Thanks to everyone for sharing!

P.S. One commenter describes dreaming of a horrible, nauseating taste. Unusual.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Maple Scent Our Odour Dear

A vocal minority of Canadians has been obsessed with a maple syrup odor (Odour?—Ed.) allegedly emanating from the country’s new polymer bank notes. Some complain (very politely, of course) that they have a difficult time detecting the scent; others complain that it shouldn’t be there at all. The Calgary Herald reveals correspondence on the topic from concerned citizens to The Bank of Canada.

The BoC denies that the bills are scented at all—but then it also denies that the maple leaves featured on the new currency are actually those of Norway maple—a non-indigenous species. Hmmm. At any rate, scent is not among the listed features of the 2011 series polymer banknotes.

Here at FirstNerve, we think a scented banknote is a fairly cool idea. For proponents of ugly new currency designs, making bills distinguishable by the visually impaired is always a priority. Scented bills solve that problem: it would be easy to tell $20 bills (Canadian bacon) from $50 bills (Labatt Blue) and $100 bills (maple syrup).

In any case, we think the bigger problem with the new Canadian notes (quite apart from the odd choice of featuring Gene Wilder on the $10 bill) is that they are plain ugly and do not look like serious money. Of course, U.S. paper currency has been on an aesthetic slide toward the goofy as well. Could that be a reason why the dollar is being challenged as the world’s de facto reserve currency?

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Patti Smith: A Different Sort of Celebrity Scent

“Sorry about the smell of cat piss. That’s why we have to cover everything in plastic.”
That’s Patti Smith apologizing to Simon Hattenstone who is interviewing her for The Guardian. A slender link to smell, but justification enough to set the WABAC machine to the late Seventies.

I saw Patti Smith shortly after she exploded onto the scene with Horses—it was at the Longbranch in Berkeley on February 17, 1976. Never seen anything like it—she would dance light as a feather then go into a trance state and chant, ramble and sing. So much intensity from such a skinny little creature. Saw her again at the New Elgin Theater in Manhattan on July 30, 1977. I still have Lenny Kaye’s guitar pick to prove it.

A lifetime ago, but still vivid.

Given the incantatory nature of her lyrics, the beautiful prose of Just Kids, her memoir of her life with Robert Mapplethorpe, was a surprise and a delight. I don’t much care for Mapplethorpe or his work but Smith’s account of their time together—and the artistic influence he had on her—is evocative and moving.

Sherman, set the WABAC machine to the encore.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

La Jolla versus Nature: “A Stinky Mess for Too Long”

Massive amounts of stinking guano in a nature preserve finally prompt La Jolla, California, Mayor Bob Filner to go all DefCon3:
Filner issued an Emergency Finding under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, declaring the area a public health hazard. 
The declaration exempts the city from the normal permitting required to clean the state-designated area of “special biological significance,” Filner said.
The city has hired a company to do the cleanup. How will they do it?
Non-pathogenic bacteria will be used to digest bird guano and any smelly organisms it hosts, thereby eliminating the smell coming from the droppings.
Hey, what’s a little bio-engineering of the environment when residents of coastal Blue California get annoyed by endangered species?

Expect backlash from pro-guano environmentalists in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .

Oh, and pass the popcorn.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

American Smellscapes: Northern Vermont

In Vermont today, I left I-89 and headed north on VT 100 toward Stowe. With the windows down I drove through three distinct odor plumes: skunk, lilac, and cow manure. Can’t bring those to you but I did capture an ambient soundscape of spring peepers.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Traffic Report: How Fare the Fragrance Blogs?

It’s been a while since I took the pulse of the smelly blogosphere using weekly Alexa traffic rankings. The Smelly Web Indexes™ used to be a regular feature here but fragrance blogs come and go at such a clip that it’s tough to maintain a consistent set of sites for tracking. Also, Alexa data are better for long-term trends than for weekly fever-charting.

While in the wine cellar yesterday dusting off a bottle of the 1981 Château Lamothe Despujols Sauternes, I heard a piteous mewling from the data monkeys in the sub-basement. They hadn’t been fed recently so I tossed them a fresh bag of Doritos and grabbed the latest data on a thumb drive.

I decided to compare traffic rankings for the first 20 weeks of 2013 to the same period last year. Here is what I found.


Three sites are doing better than last year; all are highly ranked: Perfume Posse, Bois de Jasmin, and The Non-Blonde. Perfume Posse is flying steady while the latter two seem to be in a seasonal fade.

Staying in the Game

Three sites are more or less tracking last year’s performance: Perfume Smellin’ Things, Katie Puckrick Smells, and Firmenich’s OzMoz. A fourth—1000 Fragrances—is relatively stable after big decline in 2012.

Steady Under-Performers

Five sites are consistently underperforming last year’s rankings: NST Perfume, Scented Salamander, Perfume Shrine, I Smell Therefore I Am, and Grain de Musc. The first three are among the highest ranking fragrance blogs.

Narrowing the Gap

Two sites are slowing climbing back to where they were last year: FirstNerve and the Fragrance Foundation’s

Glide Path

The Base Notes fragrance community site started the year at 2012 levels but is on a steady downward trend. Still, it remains one of the highest ranked sites in the smelly blogosphere.

Sudden Loss of Altitude

Four sites display abrupt downward deflections in traffic rank this year: Bonkers About Perfume, Mai Que Perfume, Pink Manhattan, and Indie Perfumes. The first three all lost altitude around the same time—namely, the week ending March 17, 2013.

Well, there you have it.

It should go without saying but I’ll say it anyway—I take no pleasure in observing traffic ranking declines. These are all high quality sites of long standing and I respect the blog owners, many of whom I have met. My interest is in finding out what the numbers might say about public enthusiasm for our topic and our individual ways of addressing it.

I don’t have much in the way of interpretation. I wonder whether the demise of Google’s Feed Burner has anything to do with the trends. I’d like to hear your observations and theories.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Advice Columnist Steers Widower to Certain Disaster

Okay, so it’s not exactly I Smell Dead People—more like “I smell my late wife’s perfume on my new girlfriend and it’s a problem.” Advice columnist Jann Blackstone tells the guy to avoid being truthful because “rarely do women like to be compared to one another” and because it might look like problematic devotion to his late wife.


Blackstone advises the widower to shop for a new perfume for the GF, and perhaps even “take her with you and actually spend some time together in the process.” This sounds good at a theoretical level: use the power of scent to create positive new associations. But at a practical level it is a recipe for disaster.

Choosing a fragrance for another person is difficult enough; add the emotional undercurrents of this relationship and it’s fraught with peril. Secondly, Blackstone is directing the guy to the women’s fragrance counter: seldom a comfortable situation for a male. All we know is that the widower liked his wife’s perfume, not that he is knowledgeable about or even interested in women’s perfume in general, much less at ease browsing for it. So Blackstone is recommending that the guy give style advice, no matter how indirectly, to a woman he doesn’t know that well yet, and do it in the live-fire zone of a fragrance counter.

This strike me as well-intentioned but terrible advice.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Now Showing at Ohio State: Plant Porn and Tuber Abuse

It may have other virtues, but from my point of view Columbus, Ohio, is best known as the HQ of Limited Brands, Inc. (restyled L Brands, for the moment). Sure, there’s also a football team there with a university attached, but honestly . . .

So it’s a big deal when Fox News calls attention to a non-athletic event in Columbus. And selling tickets to watch a plant grow pretty much defines non-athletic leisure-time entertainment:
Ohio State greenhouse watches 1 stinky corpse flower’s rare bloom, awaits opening of a 2nd
Two quibbles:

Firstly, corpse flower isn’t the plant’s real name; it’s a PR monicker. Apparently the direct translation of the scientific name Amorphophallus titanum is too rude for school, although giant misshapen penis pretty much captures the concept for me. Legend has it that David Attenborough came up with the sanitized name when he filmed his BBC series.

Secondly, how legit is it to call a flower “rare” when it has blossomed four times in two years, in Columbus, Ohio alone?
A 6-foot titan arum opened Tuesday to release its rotting-flesh smell two years after it first flowered. A second corpse flower opened briefly at the greenhouse last May, and a third is expected to open in seven to 10 days.
Thirdly, [Wait, you said two quibbles.—Ed.] [Zip it, I’m on a roll here.] are the folks at the OSU greenhouse behaving . . . ethically? I mean, left to themselves these Indonesian tubers go all giant penis every 20 years or so.
Spokeswoman Sandi Rutkowski says having three or four blooms within three years is lucky but also is a tribute to the skill of cultivators at the greenhouse.
Skill? What exactly are those OSU athletic trainers cultivators doing to produce 325 lb linemen corpse flower blossoms every two years?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Land of the Rising Scent

Japan is a bit of an enigma when it comes to smell. The Japanese avoid wearing strong Western-style perfume yet their long history of incense creation and appreciation speaks to an ongoing fascination with the olfactory.

The country is home to Smell Club and is a hotbed of innovation in smell technology. Japan keeps alive the dream of Smell-O-Vision: telecom giant NTT created wifi odor globes to provide a scent-track for showings of Terrence Malick’s movie The New World. NTT also produced the i-Aroma, a PC-linked device loaded with six scents. Researchers in Tokyo recently perfected a colliding airstream arrangement that give the illusion of smells emerging from specific places on a computer screen. And Nissan has developed a logoscent for its dealership showrooms and auto show events.

Still, watching items on Japanese smell technology jump off the newsfeed I sometimes experience a little déjà vu. It happened again today and I decided to investigate.

The item was about a gizmo, called the ChatPerf, that plugs into your iPhone and releases a puff of (a single) scent on software command. The link was to a YouTube of a young lady demonstrating the device. The video was uploaded today, but a little googling shows that the device has been kicking since last fall—an eternity in tech dog-years. It debuted in October, followed a few days later by a post on Slashgear, and a day later Elena Vosnaki at PerfumeShrine wrote about it. [I got your déjà vu right here.—Ed.]

The ChatPerf device has a website (still dated 2012) which pictures a different, presumably earlier version of the plug-in. The inventors seem not to know what to do with their new baby—the website implores people to suggest applications.

The questions linger: Is it vaporware? Why keep pushing it? Who is behind it? Can I get one? Does it synch with Fart Piano?

UPDATE May 14, 2013

ChatPerf, the company—or perhaps just some guy in a bathrobe on the 18th floor of the Akasaka East Tower in Tokyo’s Minato-ku precinct—behind the smelly iPhone plug-in gets more free publicity as ExtremeTech and Mashable treat the story as new.

I tweeted my own suggestions for smell-iPhone apps:

Can you change me now? Instant full diaper alert app from Pampers.
Instagas: It’s a fast, beautiful and fun way to share your bean burrito with friends and family.
Belch:  Eat, drink and share the post-ingestive effects with the Belch community of restaurant raters.

ISDP May 2013: The Barrister’s Chimney &c.

The thirteenth of the month creaks into position once again as this long, chilly spring climbs slowly into the temperature range favorable to ISDP incidents. Things have been so sparse we even skipped the April edition. Despite the weather, we bring you a few new examples of those lugubrious events where isolation, malfeasance, insanity, or the worst kind of bad luck inevitably lead to the grimmest foul odor of all.

After maintenance workers “reported a foul odor,” police made a gruesome discovery inside a Union, New Jersey, apartment on March 26.
Authorities said Friday they’re still not sure what caused the death of a woman found in an apartment with her emaciated 4-year-old son, who had been alone with her body for days, living off a bag of sugar.
The good news is that “adoption offers have poured in from around the world.” The apartment belongs to the boy’s grandmother, whose move to a nursing home following hip replacement surgery led to her daughter and grandson moving in. Authorities are looking for other relatives for the boy to live with.

The headline from Ottawa, Kansas: “Three bodies found on farm: foul smell led to horrific find.” The bodies were discovered by three local residents who went there to check on a friend they had not heard from in days. Two of them—Kortni McGill and Corey Schlotzhauer—had visited the farm the day before:
When they got there they smelled a foul odor coming from the south side of the home and called police. 
McGill said sheriff’s deputies went into the home and came out 10 to 15 minutes later, saying they didn't find anything and the smell was probably trash. She said the deputies then peered inside a large garage on the opposite side of the house, where there also was a strong, foul smell, but dismissed it as garbage and left. 
McGill and Schlotzhauer returned to the home Monday with Osladil to feed the resident’s dog and investigate the strong smell again.
Always trust your nose!

The victims have been identified and an arrest made.

We don’t usually cover ISDP incidents abroad, but material has been rather thin lately so here goes. We note that a law firm in Derby, England, plagued by a bad smell and swarms of flies, eventually located within its building’s chimney the decomposing remains of a 42-year old local man with convictions for burglary and breaking and entering. A surprising number of people end up this way.

We leave you on a musical note, with “Under a Blackened Sky,” the new release by Knoxville “groove metal” act Scent of Remains.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Something New: Smell-O-Verse

Image via

A poetry reading with a scent matched to each poem.

Damn. I wish I’d thought of that. But Alex Musgrave got there first.

He’s a writer and fragrance blogger (The Silver Fox) who also manages the Penhaligon’s store in Edinburgh, Scotland. Join him for “My Life in Poetry (& Perfume)” on Thursday, May 30th at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. Event include live music + champagne. What’s not to like?

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Bat Woman of Oz

Caragh Threlfall, a postdoc at the University of Melbourne, is my kind of field scientist. She studied predation on urban bat roosts in Sydney, Australia, by collecting and redistributing little piles of bat shit. Really. Actually, she managed to convince other people to collect a lot of the shit for her. (She clearly has potential to run a lab at full professor rank.—Ed.)

What’s the polite scientific phrase for “we collected and redistributed bat shit”? Simple: “we experimentally manipulated the amount and refresh rate of roosting odour cues.”

It turns out that predators like rats and ringtail possums key in on the smell of bat poop. Paradoxically, tiny amounts of poop spurred the most visits by predators, who probably figured it was from a solitary bat and therefore easy pickings. The attractiveness of poop to predators may be one reason large urban roosts move to a new location every few days.

Remember folks, FirstNerve is your online source for complete, ongoing coverage of Australian bat shit.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Celebuscent Train Wreck of the Month: Selena Gomez Knee-Deep in Lawsuits

Selena Gomez has countersued the fragrance company licensed to produce her celebuscent. Honestly, folks, you could see this one coming a mile away. In fact, I did and I wrote about it fourteen months ago:
So to recap: What do Adam Levine and Selena Gomez have in common? They’ve licensed their celebuscents to an under-capitalized company with slim revenues that may not be able to stay in business long enough to market their products successfully.
The U-CC under discussion was Adrenalina Inc., and the sorry state of its affairs was obvious to anyone who took the time to read the company’s most recent SEC filing.

Evidently Selena Gomez’s agent or business manager couldn’t be bothered to check it out. So . . . she signs a deal, she quits the deal, Adrenalina sues her, and now she sues them back.

So many celebs. So much perfume. So many lawyers.

Virtual Smellscapes: The Dead Man’s Nose

Via Dead Men’s Eyes

Stuart Eve, a grad student in archaeology at University College London, is the guy behind the Dead Men’s Eyes blog/project (“A mixture of Augmented Reality and Heritage. Bringing past-worlds to life.”). He’s just unveiled the Dead Man’s Nose (DMN), a virtual system that coordinates smells and sights with actual physical locations.
Using my embodied GIS [Geographic Information System] of the roundhouses on Leskernick Hill, Bodmin Moor, I set the DMN to fire off a smell of lovely Barbeque whenever I got within 20m of a roundhouse. I set the fan to run slowly at first and get faster as I got closer to the ‘source’ of the smell. The DMN performed admirably, as I walked within range of the houses I heard the tell-tale whirr of the fan and the next moment I had the lovely scent of cooking ribs. Future models will allow for more than one smell at a time (I just need a couple more computer fans) and also a better housing, a bit of 3D printing is in order! 
Now I can use the iPad to view the roundhouses overlaid onto the video feed, plug in my headphones and hear 3D sounds that get louder or quieter depending on where I am in the settlement and also I can augment different smells as I walk around. Not only can I walk around the modern day Bronze Age landscape and see the augmented roundhouses, hear the Bronze Age sheep in the distance, I can also smell the fires burning and the dinner cooking as I get closer to the village….
Readily available technology + clever design = an immersive olfacto- spatial- temporal experience. Neato!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Festival dell’Olfatto

This looks interesting. Check it out if you are in Bologna, Italy, May 21 to 26, 2013.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

American Smellscapes: Spring 2013

In the North Forty of FN Manor 

From Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d.
In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac bush, tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle . . . and from this bush in the door-yard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig, with its flower, I break.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Are Foodie Noses Different?

This title caught my eye the other day: “Food neophobia and its relation with olfactory ability in common odour identification.” It’s an article that will appear soon in print in Appetite. [Don’t you mean Bon Appétit?—Ed.] [No, I mean Appetite, the scientific journal. Keep up.]

The paper describes a study by an Italian research group using what looks like a sample of convenience, i.e., they surveyed people at their own research institute and the one next door. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily.

Participants were given an Italian translation of the Food Neophobia Scale, a questionnaire that measures one’s willingness to try unfamiliar foods. Then they were asked to identify three dozen odors drawn from the commercially available Nez du Vin collection of common wine-related scents. [Stimuli of convenience?—Ed.] [Har har.]

Few of the study participants were strongly food neophobic. The relatively more neophobic half of the sample correctly identified 35% of the test odors, while the less neophobic half got 40% correct. Viewed another way, respondents with good odor identification had an average food neophobia score of 35, while the those with poor odor identification averaged 40 (i.e., they were slightly more neophobic).

Neither difference was large but both were statistically significant. This allowed the researchers to summarize as follows:
In the analyses, an advantage in odour identification abilities for non-neophobic people over more-neophobic participants was observed. [...] The results of the present study suggest a connection between the attitude toward the exploration of the chemosensory environment and the ability to identify odours.
I suppose that’s a fair conclusion. The effect size is not overwhelming, but then it was found in a population that was distinctly middle-of-the-road, food neophobia-wise. (The upside of a sample of convenience . . .)

What leaves me feeling somewhat unsatisfied is the circular nature of the larger food neophobia hypothesis. It seems to boil down to “people with broader food selection in their diet tend to be less food neophobic.” But that’s going to be true by definition, isn’t it?

P.S. Speaking of new foods, I had my first Chik-fil-A experience at the AChemS meeting in California. A Spicy Chicken Sandwich at the franchise in Westminster near Huntington Beach. Tasty!

P.P.S. I also recommend the corn dog at Zack’s snack shack at the base of the Huntington Beach Pier. Just the right ratio of corn dough to hot dog. [Quite le bec fin, aren’t we?—Ed.] [I’m an enthusiastic advocate of indigenous American cuisine.]

P.P.P.S. The Main Street Wine Company in HB has a great tasting selection and nice cheese and charcuterie plates to go with it.

P.P.P.P.S. Some friends at the AChemS meeting said “Let’s have dinner at this Mexican place,” so we drove down the PCH to Javier’s in the Crystal Cove Mall in Newport Beach. Holy mole! Javier’s valet parking was full of Maseratis and BMWs and Benzs. Inside were numerous fire pits, masses of burning candles, several water features and a men’s room attendant (the last one I encountered was 15 years ago at the Oyster Bar in The Plaza). The place was full of fabulously coiffed people sporting awesomely good plastic surgery (the ladies too!). It had unctuous waiters and reasonably good food. And all I could think was, “I’m having dinner at Casa Bonita.”

The study discussed here is “Food neophobia and its relation with olfactory ability in common odour identification,” by M. Luisa Demattè, Isabella Endrizzi, Franco Biasioli, Maria Laura Corollaro, Nicola Pojer, Massimiliano Zampini, Eugenio Aprea, and Flavia Gasperi, published online in Appetite on April 27, 2013.

Sunday, May 5, 2013


On the Berkeley campus last week I caught up with an old Coop pal of mine at the California Alumni Association. Knowing my predilections she gave me promotional item from last year: a “New Stadium Scent” car air freshener with the Cal football home schedule on the reverse side. It’s pretty potent smelling—like a courtesy soap bar from from a lower end motel chain. They could have come to me for better fragrance execution. Still, it’s the thought that counts.

After 87 years atop the Hayward fault, the university embarked on a total rebuild of Memorial Stadium in 2010 while the Golden Bears played at AT&T Park in San Francisco. The new structure retains the original Roman coliseum style exterior but is now seismically up to code along with better training facilities. The 2012 season was the team’s first in the new stadium but it was not a resounding success; they were 3 and 9 overall, 2 and 8 in the Pac 12 conference.

I’ve enjoyed some spectacular Saturday afternoons in Memorial Stadium. If nothing else, the late afternoon view over the rim is worth it: the Bay, the bridges, the fog. Every so often the Bears field a formidable team—in my time the standouts were running back Chuck Muncie (later with the NFL Saints and Chargers), wide receiver Wesley Walker (Jets), and QB Steve Bartkowski (Falcons). More recent graduates include QB Aaron Rogers (Packers), wide receiver DeSean Jackson (Eagles), and running back Marshawn Lynch (Seahawks).

Anyway, all that really counts is beating Stanfurd in the Big Game. (Taking out the trombone player only makes it sweeter.)

Friday, May 3, 2013

Movies & Molecular Biology

I’ve followed the molecular biology of olfaction ever since Linda Buck and Richard Axel burst upon the scene in 1991 with their discovery of the olfactory receptor genes. Along the way I’ve learned some molecular biology—it’s now about as good as my tourist French—and I like to check in on the field at the AChemS conference.

At this year’s meeting was a poster by Françoise Wilkin and colleagues from ChemCom S.A. in Brussels, Belgium, called “Profiling of OR gene expression in the human olfactory epithelium.” While Buck and Axel identified roughly 1,500 mammalian olfactory receptor (OR) genes, it turns out that many of these are non-functional; the exact proportion varies between species. Humans have about 450 functional receptor genes. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that every person actively expresses all 450. Wilkin et al. took olfactory neuroepithelium tissue from eight cadavers and looked for actively expressed receptors. They found 200 of them, or roughly half of the functional OR genome. Of these, 114 were expressed in all eight tissue donors; the rest were expressed in some but not all donors. This variation in expression could account for some of the variability between people in odor perception.

At the Industry Symposium, the theme of which was “Taste And Smell In Translation: Applications From Basic Research,” Joel Mainland from the Monell Chemical Senses Center gave an excellent talk. His topic was “Insights from olfactory receptor screening.” Later, at a reception, we had a chance to talk about why relatively little progress has been made converting olfactory genomics to commercial use (at least when compared to the active work being pursued on taste receptors and novel agonists and antagonists for same). Part of the problem is the sheer number of OR genes one has to deal with. But that can be handled with high throughput screening. What’s really missing is motivation, i.e., specific sensory targets linked to palpable business opportunities. Once the target-plus-application path is clear, the logjam might break.

At the same reception I met Joseph Rucker, Director of R&D at Integral Molecular in Philadelphia. His company develops technologies focused on membrane proteins and thus he is well-informed about OR receptors. (His AChemS talk was “Comprehensive mapping of functional sites for agonists and inhibitors of the bitter taste receptor TAS2R16”). We were talking about ion channels in sensory neurons when Joe reminded me of a 2011 Nature paper by Frank Zufall and others. They investigated loss of function in the SCN9A gene, which encodes a voltage-gated sodium channel. People lacking this gene have a congenital inability to experience pain. Zufall et al. discovered that patients with loss of function mutations in SCN9A are also unable to smell. Mice in which the sodium channel was experimentally deleted from nasal tissue also appeared to be anosmic.

Which brings us to the movies. [About time.—Ed.] [Bite me.] Ronald Niedermann, the giant blond goon in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, was completely insensitive to pain. This led to some spectacular consequences for Lisbeth Salander, among others. Presumably Niedermann was also anosmic. Since I only watched the movies, this leads to an

Exit question: In Larsson’s novels, was the Ronald Niedermann character anosmic and, if so, how did this affect the plot?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

American Smellscapes: Finger Pointing in Homer, Alaska

Springtime has brought an unprecedented off-odor to Homer, Alaska, a town of 5,000 souls located near the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula. Michael Armstrong, a staff writer at the Homer News, does a nice job of conveying the character of the stink.
• Start with a generous dose of wet dog;
• Add a sprinkle of sewage sludge;
• Toss in a dead sea otter;
• Throw in that yucky black stuff at the bottom of an unturned compost heap;
• Marinade in fresh horse manure, and
• Let stand in a sealed 5-gallon bucket.
 Open the bucket a week later, take a deep whiff and prepare to gag.
But the fun really starts when he explores possible sources of the stench. Everyone he interviews has a different theory. Among the suspects: a poorly drained lawn at Bishop’s Beach park, pig-poop contaminated dirt from the Matanuska Valley, the Public Works sewage lagoon, the Beluga Slough wetlands, uncollected dog turds, and anaerobic bacteria in the soil. There seems to be plenty of blame to go around.

Back at the Ranch

I’m back at FirstNerve Manor after three weeks on the road: Ann Arbor, Los Angeles, the SF Bay Area, and Philly. Had intended to blog and tweet more from the AChemS meeting, but time pressures and a stupid phone conspired to prevent it. Sorry about that. C’est la vie.