Our most enigmatic scent, smell, has the power to instantly transport us to another time and place. In a Science Sessions podcast hosted by Prashant Nair, Weizmann Institute scientist Prof. Noam Sobel talked about his team’s work in creating olfactory fingerprints. Does this mean that when I smell lilacs, I perceive the scent differently than you might?

Research from Prof. Sobel and his team reveals that this might be the case, which is really too bad for those of you who don’t feel like you’re in paradise when standing next to a lilac bush. On the other hand – what scents do you love that I'm missing out on? Prof. Sobel’s team dives in:

Proteins called olfactory receptors – of which there are more than 400 subtypes in the olfactory epithelium lining the nose – play an important part in sensing smell, and subsets of these receptors are specialized to detect different odors. And because almost one-third of the DNA encoding these olfactory receptors is thought to be unique to each person, it might be possible to derive a human fingerprint of olfactory perception.

The conversation between Prof. Sobel and Nair took place at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, California. I like to imagine the scent of buttered popcorn in the air as they chatted. Or...wait. How about freshly baked apple pie? Or melted chocolate? Or did it just – smell like a conference center? The way you perceive the smell of a conference center and the way I perceive it might be very different. The result is what Prof. Sobel calls an “olfactory fingerprint.” Without a subtle tool to tell the difference between the way we register scents, the team tested 89 volunteers to describe scents. Olfactory fingerprints were derived from descriptions such as “very lemony” or “very masculine.” (Speaking of “very masculine,” Prof. Sobel’s team also did some very compelling research on the impact of women’s tears on men, and found that sexual arousal and testosterone levels dropped after exposure).

One key finding is that people who ​have similar olfactory perception also have a tendency to be closer in ways that may make the test useful in pre-screening for organ donation and transplantation. The team continues to explore possibilities. The test might also be used to detect deep compatibility between romantic partners. This makes sense, considering the link between desire and scent.