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Chemist Featured in Scientific American

Eric Block, distinguished professor of chemistry. (Photo by Dr. Abith Vattekkatte)   

ALBANY, N.Y. (November 17, 2016) – UAlbany chemistry professor Eric Block is making big headlines for his stinky discovery.

Block, along with a team of chemists, are featured in the upcoming December edition of Scientific American for determining why our nose is sensitive to the foul smell associated with natural gas odorants.

Their study not only located which olfactory receptor is responsible for the smell, but also found the presence of metal copper and/or silver amplifies its sensitivity by one hundred to one thousand times.

“This is the first time a metal has been implicated in smell, and the study will likely encourage other scientists seeking to better understand olfaction to look for metallic sidekicks,” said Robert Crabtree, a chemistry at Yale University, in an interview with Scientific American.

Though odorless in its normal state, utility companies add sulfur-containing compounds — called thiols — to natural gas so it’s easy to detect a leak. The stench is reminiscent of rotting cabbage or spoiled eggs.

Evolutionarily, it pays off to have a nose that can pick up the minutest presence of thiols, Block told Scientific American. It is often associated with things to avoid, including gas leaks, skunks and rotten food.

The team’s findings could be the first step in helping people who are not responsive to the compound.

“Unfortunately, some people have a diminished sense of smell, or the absence of smell all together,” Block said. “Understanding how we smell thiols could help doctors with treatment.”

Beyond Scientific American, this research has also earned placements in Mental Floss, Phys.org, Chemistry World and the UAlbany NewsCenter.

Learn more about Block by visiting his faculty expert page.

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