Let’s Get Smelling

It’s that time again people. Time to talk chemistry. Today I want to discuss a couple of articles I came across the fabulous site Compound Chem and what they got me thinking about.

First up I read “The Chemistry of Wild Garlic.” It talked about the compounds that give garlic its smell. These sulfoxides are the cause of that pesky garlic breath and a warning for the woodsman. The sulfur leaves a stench. However, garlic still is tasty. Some poisonous plants happen to look mighty similar to wild garlic. Fortunately for us they don’t share the production of sulfoxides making the garlic easily distinguishable.  But what good do they do the plants? Well in addition to all those fun features for humans they help the plants by serving as an antifungal and antibacterial compound. The sulfur in the compounds interferes with the biological processes in the cells. All around those sulfoxides sure are handy.

Next came an article about bearcats. These animals are endangered but given their delicious smell I can imagine why. Yeah, yeah my bad. I know it’s a little too soon to be joking about endangered species. Anyways I digress. Back to the topic at hand, these animals smell remarkably like buttered popcorn. In fact in a manner of speaking you could say they’re in the same family. Bearcats excrete fluids that contain the same compound, 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline, that gives buttered popcorn its smell. But before you try to bring one to the movies for a never-ending supply of buttery goodness I should warn you. Those excretions I mentioned earlier are found in the bearcats’ urine. The good smell doesn’t have any concrete positive implications for the animal at this time but it’s hypothesized it might be some sort of method for communicating. Either way I personally hope they figure out a way to duplicate the process. It would certainly make cleaning out the kitty litter more bearable.

These articles got me thinking on smell. As a sense it seems sort of undervalued in today’s society. Everything is about audio and visual. But smell can be just as important. It lets us know what’s up when our other senses fail us. You can often smell gas before you can see it. Olfaction can save lives. For another example, although our own sense of smell is a little weak our companions are superior. Dogs and cats both will be able to smell something wrong like a fire long before we will and they can warn us accordingly. Those little bitty particles in the air that we detect are also a marvelous indicator of good food. If something smells good it usually is. With the exception of coffee in my opinion. This process of smelling recalls me to my last chemistry class when we discussed solutions. Solutions can even be mixtures of gases. The presence of one gas can sometimes be measured in extremely small units parts per billion for example. It would be interesting to find out just how sensitive the human nose is, if it could pick up on something in the parts per billion. In general, I guess it’s important to remember you have 5 senses and you should use them.

And as always we have something that relies on chemistry. Chemistry holds the world together from the smallest atom to the biggest person the discipline is at work. As I prepare to end my first chemistry class I look forward to the next one and learning more about a study so intertwined with everyday life.

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