Quirks & Quarks

Smelling like a Trillion

New research suggests that humans may be able to detect and discriminate a trillion different odours....

How well can we smell? Work done in the early 20th century suggested that we could discriminate about 10,000 different odours. But Dr. Andreas Keller, from the Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior at The Rockefeller University in New York City, has long suspected this number was wrong. He performed an experiment in which volunteers were asked to discriminate between mixtures of odorant chemicals, and by extrapolating from these results, he determined that humans can probably distinguish upwards of a trillion different smells.

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