"You can use the receptors to build novel sensor devices, and that's the future," he said.
The study appeared in last week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Scientists still don't know exactly how the receptors function or how odors are interpreted in the brain.
"Smell is perhaps one of the oldest and most primitive senses, but nobody really understands how it works. It still remains a tantalizing enigma," said MIT's Zhang.
Brian Cook, who earned his Ph.D. working on the project, said he's most excited about learning about smell at the molecular level.
"No one is really sure how these receptors interact with and recognize specific odor molecules," he said. "There has been much controversy regarding this subject, and several competing theories have been battling each other for decades."
Isolating the olfactory proteins is the first step, he said, but the road to artificial noses will require much more work.
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