Wednesday, February 12, 2014

ISDP: Getting Chummy

By the time this post goes up in the desolate early hours of February 13th, the first flakes of yet another Nor’easter will be coating the warped shingles atop Firstnerve Manor. The grounds are already under a foot of rock-hard snow so this accumulation could keep us indoors, huddled around the kerosene space heater, for another week or so. (Yeah, carbon monoxide risk, yadda yadda. Buck up. What’s a few cortical layers when the alternative is frostbite?) Needless to say, with two-thirds of the country blanketed by snow, these are times that offer scant material for FN’s highly popular ISDP feature. Not surprisingly, this month’s sole item comes from the ever sunny climes of Southern California.

Foul smell leads to discovery of body” reads the headline in the San Diego Union-Tribune. The source of the odor was apparently the remains of a man whose death the police regard as suspicious. Also found in the apartment in Oceanside, California, was a woman in her 50s who was unconscious. No details are available, but the circumstances could pose a vexing metaphysical issue concerning eligibility for the Norman Bates Award™. Specifically, does one need to be conscious while living with the malodorous corpse?

Since one item doesn’t really make for a satisfying installment of ISDP, we feel obliged to serve up some heartier intellectual fare. Such as, for example, this opening sentence from a November, 2013 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which we’d offer under the heading of “No shit, Sherlock” if FN had such a feature:
“Carrion smell is strongly repugnant to humans . . .”
You don’t say. (Parenthetically, can one correctly refer to the odor of a decomposing human body as “carrion smell”? Or is that phrase (subparenthetically) reserved for the scent of non-human remains?)

At any rate, the article in question, “High-affinity olfactory receptor for the death-associated odor cadaverine,” is a collaborative effort by researchers at Harvard and the Universität zu Köln. [What, did they think it would look odd to be listed on this paper as from the University of Cologne?—Ed.]

According to the Harvard Cologne team, carrion smell
. . .is mainly carried by two small aliphatic diamines, putrescine and cadaverine, which are generated by bacterial decarboxylation of the basic amino acids ornithine and lysine.
Well, duh.

Working with zebrafish, who avoid the scent of small aliphatic diamines like . . . well, like we do, the scientists found cadaverine is detected by a single olfactory receptor, the trace amine-associated receptor 13c. Furthermore, TAAR13c “can also be activated by decaying fish extracts.”

It’s just a hunch, but we predict that a lot of science fair projects will be using the class goldfish that died during the snow days.

No comments: