Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Isotope effect of olfaction

Flies can smell the difference between normal hydrogen and deuterium. This is not in accordance with the standard theory of olfaction which says that olfaction relies on the shape of the molecule but conforms with the theory of Luca Turin, who is one of the co-authors of the article

Franco, M. I., Turin, L., Mershin, A. & Skoulakis, E. M. C. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA doi:10.1073/pnas.1012293108 (2011)

reporting the discovery. The theory assumes that olfaction relies on molecular vibrational frequencies depending on the mass of the isotope. You can make your day perfect by enjoying the summary of the vibrational theory of scents by Luca Turin himself (I am grateful for Fischer Gabor for the link). There is also a Wikipedia article about Vibration Theory of Olfaction.

1. Turin's theory

From Turin's lecture and WIkipedia article one learns why reductionism is so nice when it can be applied.

  1. If the molecular vibrations in a reasonable approximation reduce to independent vibrations assignable to various chemical bonds, the problem of predicting the odor of the molecule reduces to the calculation or measurement of the oscillation frequencies associated with the chemical bonds of between two atoms or between two molecules forming a bigger molecule as a composite. Near IR frequencies in .8-2.5 μm wavelength range associated with vibrational spectrum are inversely proportional to the reduced mass of the pair of atoms or molecules connected by the chemical bond and the IR frequencies related to rotational-vibrational transitions depending on more complex manner on the molecular mass are good candidates for inducing the olfactory qualia at least in the case of insects.

  2. Situation is also simplified by the fact that only a finite range of frequencies is expected to induce odor sensation just as only finite range of frequencies induces visual percept. Hence the engineering of odors becomes possible by considering only some basic bonds. One can test the model by replacing the hydrogen with deuterium in some constituent of the molecule and this was done in the article referred above.

  3. The odor of the molecule should be a superposition of the basic odors assignable to the basic chemical bonds just like visual color is a superposition of primary colors. One must however remember that the quantum phase transition inducing the odor sensation itself need not have anything to do with the IR photons and many frequencies could induce the same quantum phase transition. The innocent novice is also allowed to ask whether the harmonics of the fundamental oscillation frequency could give rise to the olfactory analogy of timbre distinguishing between different musical instruments and whether octaves correspond to more or less similar odor sensation. The following considerations suggest that the answer to these questions is negative.

In Turin's theory vibrational frequencies are interpreted in terms of a model of receptor based on the idea that electron tunneling occurs between odor molecule and receptor and generates odor sensation if the energies of the electron states at the both sides are same. In general the ground state energies of the electron at the two sides are different but it can happen that the condition is satisfied for some excited state of electron of the acceptor so that odor perception is due to a tunneling to an excited state. The model requires the fusion of the odorant molecule to the receptor so that there is a close relationship with the standard theory assuming lock-and-key mechanism.

2. Callahan's theory

The finding conforms also with the old discovery of Callahan that the olfaction of insects is analogous to seeing at IR frequencies. This hypothesis explains among other things the finding that insects seem to love candles. See this:

Callahan, P. S. (1977). Moth and Candle: the Candle Flame as a Sexual Mimic of the Coded Infrared Wavelengths from a Moth Sex Scent. Applied Optics. 16(12) 3089-3097.

If I have understood Callahan's theory correctly, the IR photons emitted by the odorant would induce transitions of electrons or Cooper pairs of the odor receptor. This would allow "radiative smelling" without a direct contact between odor molecules and olfactory receptors and at the first glance this seems like an unrealistic prediction. However, since the average power of radiation is proportional to 1/r2, where r is the distance between the receptor and molecule, radiative smelling would in practice be limited to rather short distances unless the radiation is guided. Maybe this could be tested experimentally by using coherent beam of IR light as a candidate for an artificial odorant.

3. TGD based theory

In TGD inspired theory of qualia one must distinguish between the sensory input inducing the quale and its secondary representation in terms of Josephson and cyclotron frequencies.

  1. All qualia are coded (but not necessarily induced!) by various frequencies and communication using dark photons with various values of Planck constant meaning scaling down of visible basic frequencies is an essential element of communications at the level of biological body and between magnetic body and biological body. Josephson frequencies and cyclotron frequencies with so large Planck constant that energies are above thermal energy play a key role in the these communications. Note that cyclotron frequencies are inversely proportional to the mass of the ion so that isotope effect also at this level is predicted.

    Josephson frequencies are assignable to cell membrane and one ends up with a nice model for the visual qualia assuming some new physics predicted by TGD. Josephson frequencies and their modulation (as in the case of hearing) should be highly relevant for all qualia.

  2. The capacitor model for sensory qualia assumes that all qualia are generated via the quantum analog of dielectric breakdown in which particles with given quantum numbers characterizing the quale flow between the plates of the capacitor. For sensory receptors the capacitor is obtained by a multi-layered structure obtained by a multiple folding of the cell membrane so that the efficiency of the sensory receptor increases.

  3. In Turin's model the second plate of the capacitor model would correspond to the odorant molecule. This does not however allow anything resembling di-electric breakdown. It is difficult to imagine how to achieve a quantum phase transition involving simultaneous tunneling of a large number of electrons unless the receptor binds a large number of odorant molecules. Odor molecules should also form a quantum coherent state: a molecular analog of atomic Bose-Einstein condensate would be required. This would mean that only very special odor molecules could be smelled.

  4. For the Callahan's variant of the theory the IR photons could excite the Cooper pairs of the other plate of the capacitor so that the tunneling becomes possible and quantum variant of di-electric breakdown can take place. This model is consistent also with the assumption that cell membrane acts as a Josephson junction and fundamental sensory capacitor. The energy of electron gained in the electric field of the cell membrane is in the range .04-.08 eV which indeed corresponds to IR frequencies. The variation of the membrane potential would give rise to the spectrum of basic odors. Roughly one octave of frequencies could be smelled if the cell membrane defines the fundamental nose smelling the energy of electron.

    This option allows also the coding of odors by IR frequencies themselves so that brain could generate virtual odors by sending quantum coherent IR light to the odor receptors. This would explain odor hallucinations (and also other sensory hallucinations) as virtual percepts generated by brain itself. This sensory feedback would be absolutely essential for building up of standardized sensory percepts.

  5. The difference between visual and odour receptors would be that the ground states of the cell membrane would correspond to near to vacuum extremals resp. far from vacuum extremals and therefore Josephson frequencies would be in visible resp. IR range respectively.

For the general theory of qualia including also a model of odor perception see the chapter General Theory of Qualia of "TGD Universe as Conscious Hologram".


At 10:18 AM, Blogger Ulla said...

Now my essay is accepted.

We'll see if it is noticed at all. A biologist, amateur physicist and upon that interested in meridians and reflexology, oh my. Maybe they don't even dare to look:)

At 1:17 AM, Anonymous matpitka@luukku.com said...


At 7:12 AM, Blogger Ulla said...

See also this, nearly related.


At 10:04 AM, Blogger Ulla said...



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