Molecular vibration-sensing component in human olfaction

PLoS One. 2013;8(1):e55780. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0055780. Epub 2013 Jan 25.


Whether olfaction recognizes odorants by their shape, their molecular vibrations, or both remains an open and controversial question. A convenient way to address it is to test for odor character differences between deuterated and undeuterated odorant isotopomers, since these have identical ground-state conformations but different vibrational modes. In a previous paper (Franco et al. (2011) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 108:9, 3797-802) we showed that fruit flies can recognize the presence of deuterium in odorants by a vibrational mechanism. Here we address the question of whether humans too can distinguish deuterated and undeuterated odorants. A previous report (Keller and Vosshall (2004) Nat Neurosci 7:4, 337-8) indicated that naive subjects are incapable of distinguishing acetophenone and d-8 acetophenone. Here we confirm and extend those results to trained subjects and gas-chromatography [GC]-pure odorants. However, we also show that subjects easily distinguish deuterated and undeuterated musk odorants purified to GC-pure standard. These results are consistent with a vibrational component in human olfaction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acetophenones
  • Fatty Acids, Monounsaturated
  • Humans
  • Odorants
  • Olfactory Perception / physiology*
  • Smell / physiology*
  • Vibration*


  • Acetophenones
  • Fatty Acids, Monounsaturated
  • musk
  • acetophenone

Grants and funding

Funded by the Greek Ministry of Education and Research. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.