Life Lines by Dr. Dolittle

Sponsored by the American Physiological Society

Sniffing out cancer?


Image by Whoisjohngalt via Wikimedia Commons

I just saw an interesting review article published in Physiological Reviews that discussed the presence of olfactory (i.e. smell) receptors located outside of the nose.

Say what?

It turns out that these “smell” receptors are not unique to our nostrils. In fact they are found throughout our bodies. Those found in the heart may be responsible for regulating heart function, those in the immune system are thought to help destroy types of leukemia cells, in the skin they may help regenerate tissue during wound healing, and in the digestive tract they may cause chronic diarrhea, constipation or perhaps even improve digestion. These olfactory receptors also have implications in cancer as they are thought to reduce or promote cancer growth in the prostate, prevent cancer cells from spreading in the liver, and reduce colon cancer cell growth.

Some animals have olfactory receptors located outside of nostrils as well, although they are still responsible for sensing chemicals in the environment. An article from National Geographic explored how Oregon shore crabs (Hemigrapsus oregonensis) smell things in the environment using an external array of hair cells that resemble a toothbrush.

Hemigrapsus on Orcas Island.JPG

Oregon shore crab photo by Ciar via Wikimedia Commons 

Snakes, on the other hand, sense smells by capturing scent molecules on their tongues and moving these molecules into pits in the roof of their mouths that can sense them.

File:The Grass Snake - Natrix natrix.jpg

Photo of snake by Darius Baužys [CC BY 3.0 (

Flies have chemical sensing hairs on their mouths and feet (tarsi for an insect). So when they walk on your food, they really are giving it a taste. Similarly, octopuses have chemical receptors in their suckers.

File:Suckers of octopus by steve lodefink.jpg

Image of octopus suckers by Steve_lodefink [CC BY 2.0


The APS press release site

Maßberg D, Hatt H. Human olfactory receptors: Novel cellular functions outside of the nose. Physiological Reviews. 98(3): 1739-1763, 2018.

Categories: Illnesses and Injuries, Nature's Solutions

Tags: , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s