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Nose Can Sense 1 Trillion Scents, Study Says
March 23, 2014

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The nose is an incredibly powerful organ, according to a new study, which estimates that the human nose can smell at least 1 trillion scents.

A group of scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Rockefeller University gave specially mixed sets of odor molecules to a group of volunteers. Each of the 26 volunteers tested 264 comparisons of sets of odor molecules that mixed up to 30 different components. And after tabulating the results and making acceptable estimates, the scientists arrived at the figure of 1 trillion as the number of smellable scents. Among the findings was that the volunteers could tell the difference between mixes of smells that had up to 51 percent of the same type of odor molecule.

A 1927 study put the estimate of the number of scents that the human nose could detect at about 10,000. That stood in stark contrast to estimates of colors that the eye could see (several million) and sounds that the ear could hear (half a million). The 10,000 figure seemed low to many scientists, especially given the eye's ability to see all those colors with only three light receptors, compared to the nose's hundreds of different smell receptors.

The results of the recent study have been published in the journal Science.


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