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"Aroma" redirects here. For other uses, see Aroma (disambiguation).

An odor (or odour in British English) or fragrance (commonly referred to as a smell) is caused by one or more volatilized chemical compounds, generally at a very low concentration, that humans or other animals perceive by the sense of olfaction. Odors are also commonly called scents, which can refer to both pleasant and unpleasant odors. The terms fragrance and aroma are used primarily by the food and cosmetic industry to describe a pleasant odor, and are sometimes used to refer to perfumes. In contrast, malodor, stench, reek, and stink are used specifically to describe unpleasant odor.

In the United Kingdom, odour refers to scents in general. In the United States, odor has a more negative connotation, such as smell, stench or stink, while scent or aroma are used for pleasant smells.


The sense of smell gives rise to the perception of odors, mediated by the olfactory nerve. The olfactory receptor (OR) cells are neurons present in the olfactory epithelium, a small patch of tissue in back of the nasal cavity. There are millions of olfactory receptor neurons that act as sensory signaling cells. Each neuron has cilia in direct contact with air. The olfactory nerve is considered the smell mediator, the axon connects the brain to the external air. Odorous molecules act as a chemical stimulus. Molecules bind to receptor proteins extended from cilia, initiating an electric signal.

The primary sequences of thousands of olfactory receptors are known from the genomes of more than a dozen organisms: they are seven-helix transmembrane proteins, but there are (as of July 2011) no known structures of any OR. There is a highly conserved sequence in roughly three quarters of all ORs that is a tripodal metal ion binding site,[1] and Suslick has proposed that the ORs are in fact metalloproteins (most likely with zinc, copper and possibly manganese ions) that serve as a Lewis Acid site for binding of many odorant molecules. Crabtree, in 1978, had previously suggested that Cu(I) is "the most likely candidate for a metallo-receptor site in olfaction" for strong-smelling volatiles which are also good metal-coordinating ligands, such as thiols.[2] Zhuang, Matsunami and Block, in 2012, confirmed the Crabtree/Suslick proposal for the specific case of a mouse OR, MOR244-3, showing that copper is essential for detection of certain thiols and other sulfur-containing compounds. Thus, by using a chemical that binds to copper in the mouse nose, so that copper wasn’t available to the receptors, the authors showed that the mice couldn't detect the thiols. However, these authors also found that MOR244-3 lacks the specific metal ion binding site suggested by Suslick, instead showing a different motif in the EC2 domain.[3]

When the signal reaches a threshold, the neuron fires, sending a signal traveling along the axon to the olfactory bulb, part of the limbic system of the brain. Interpretation of the smell begins, relating the smell to past experiences and in relation to the substance(s) emitted. The olfactory bulb acts as a relay station connecting the nose to the olfactory cortex in the brain. Olfactory information is further processed and projected through a pathway to the central nervous system (CNS), which controls emotions and behavior as well as basic thought processes.

Odor sensation depends on the concentration (number of molecules) available to the olfactory receptors. A single odorant stimulus type is typically recognized by multiple receptors, and different odorants are recognized by combinations of receptors, the patterns of neuron signals helping to identify the smell. The olfactory system does not interpret a single compound, but instead the whole odorous mix, not necessarily corresponding to concentration or intensity of any single constituent.[4][5]

The widest range of odors consists of organic compounds, although some simple compounds not containing carbon, such as hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, are also odorants. The perception of an odor effect is a two-step process. First, there is the physiological part; the detection of stimuli by receptors in the nose. The stimuli are processed by the region of the human brain which is responsible for olfaction. Because of this, an objective and analytical measure of odor is impossible. While odor feelings are very personal perceptions, individual reactions are related to gender, age, state of health, and personal history.

Common odors that people are used to, such as their own body odor, are less noticeable to individuals than external or uncommon odors. This is due to habituation; after continuous odor exposure, the sense of smell fatigues quickly, but recovers rapidly after the stimulus is removed.[6] Odors can change due to environmental conditions, for example odors tend to be more distinguishable in cool dry air.[7]

Habituation affects the ability to distinguish odors after continuous exposure. The sensitivity and ability to discriminate odors diminishes with exposure, and the brain tends to ignore continuous stimulus and focus on differences and changes in a particular sensation. When odorants are mixed, the conditioned odorant is blocked out because of habituation. This depends on the strength of the odorants in the mixture which can change perception and processing of an odor. This process helps classify similar odors as well as adjust sensitivity to differences in complex stimuli.[8]

For most untrained people, the process of smelling gives little information concerning the specific ingredients of an odor. Their smell perception primarily offers information related to the emotional impact. Experienced people, however, such as flavorists and perfumers, can pick out individual chemicals in complex mixes through smell alone.

Odor perception is a primal sense. The sense of smell enables pleasure, can subconsciously warn of danger, help locate mates, find food, or detect predators. Humans have a surprisingly good sense of smell (even though they only have 350 functional olfactory receptor genes compared to the 1,300 found in mice) correlated to an evolutionary decline in sense of smell. Human's remarkable sense of smell is just as good as many animals, and can distinguish a diversity of odors- approximately 10,000 scents. This is because of the retro nasal route in humans to increase sensation.[further explanation needed] However, animals such as dogs show a greater sensitivity to odors than humans especially in studies using short-chained compounds. Higher cognitive brain mechanisms and more olfactory brain regions enable humans to discriminate odors better than other mammals despite fewer olfactory receptor genes.[9]

Different categorizations of primary odors have been proposed, among others this, which relies on seven primary odors: (with examples)[10][11]

  1. Musky- perfumes/aftershave
  2. Putrid- rotten eggs
  3. Pungent- vinegar
  4. Camphoraceous- mothballs
  5. Ethereal- dry cleaning fluid
  6. Floral- roses
  7. Pepperminty- mint gum

Although recently progress has been made, the idea of primary perceptions is disputed, and more so probably the concept of primary odors. [12]


The ability to identify odors varies among people and decreases with age. Studies show there are sex differences in odor discrimination; women usually outperform men.[13] Pregnant women also have increased smell sensitivity, sometimes resulting in abnormal taste and smell perceptions, leading to food cravings or aversions.[14] Deficits in smell also increase with age as well as a prevalence of taste problems (the sense of smell tends to dominate the sense of taste). Chronic smell problems are reported in small numbers for those in their mid-twenties, with numbers increasing steadily with overall sensitivity beginning to decline in the second decade of life, and then deteriorating appreciably as age increases to over 70 years of age.[15]

In Germany, the concentrations of odorants have since the 1870s been defined by "Olfaktometrie", which helps to analyze the human sense of smell using the following parameters: odor substance concentration, intensity of odor, and hedonic assessment.

To establish the odor concentration, an olfactometer test is used, which employs a panel of human noses as sensors. In the olfactometry testing procedure, a diluted odorous mixture and an odor-free gas (as a reference) are presented separately from sniffing ports to a group of panelists, who are housed in an odor-neutral room. They are asked to compare the gases emitted from each sniffing port, after which the panelists are asked to report the presence of odor together with a confidence level such as guessing, inkling, or certainty of their assessment. The gas-diluting ratio is then decreased by a factor of two (i.e. chemical concentration is increased by a factor of two). The panelists are then asked to repeat their judgment. This continues for a number of dilution levels. The responses of the panelists over a range of dilution settings are used to calculate the concentration of the odor in terms of European Odor Units (ouE/m³). The main panel calibration gas used is butan-1-ol, which at a certain diluting gives 1 ouE/m³.

General survey

The analytic methods could be subdivided into the physical, the gas chromatographical, and the chemosensory method.

When measuring odor, there is a difference between emission and immission measurements. Emission measurement can be conducted by olfactometry using an olfactometer to dilute the odor sample. On the contrary, olfactometry is rarely used for immission measurement because of the low odor concentrations. The same measuring principles are used, but the judgment of the air assay happens without diluting the samples.


Different aspects of odor can be measured through a number of quantitative methods, such as assessing concentration or apparent intensity.

Initial entry into a room provides the most accurate sensing of smell, before habituation begins to change perception of odor.

Sensation of odor has 4 properties related to threshold and tolerance: odor concentration, odor intensity, odor quality, and hedonic tone.

Measuring concentration

Odor concentration is an odor's pervasiveness. To measure odor sensation, an odor is diluted to certain amounts to reach a detection or recognition threshold. The detection threshold is the concentration of an odor in air when 50% of a population can distinguish between the odorous sample and an odor free blank. The recognition threshold is the concentration of an odor in air in which 50% of a population can discern from an odorous sample and odor free blank.The recognition odor threshold is usually a factor of 2 to 5 times higher than the detection threshold.[10]

The measurement of odor concentration is the most widespread method to quantify odors. It is standardized in CEN EN 13725:2003.[16] The method is based on dilution of an odor sample to the odor threshold (the point at which the odor is only just detectable to 50% of the test panel). The numerical value of the odor concentration is equal to the dilution factor that is necessary to reach the odor threshold. Its unit is the European Odor Unit, OUE. Therefore, the odor concentration at the odor threshold is 1 OUE by definition.

To establish the odor concentration, an olfactometer is used which employs a group of panelists. A diluted odorous mixture and an odor-free gas (as a reference) are presented from sniffing ports to a group of panelists. In comparing the odor emitted from each port, the panelists are asked to report if they can detect a difference between the ports. The gas-diluting ratio is then decreased by a factor of 1.4 or two (i.e. the concentration is increased accordingly). The panelists are asked to repeat their judgment. This continues until the panelists respond certain and correct twice in a row. These responses are used to calculate the concentration of the odor in terms of European Odor Units (OUE/m3).

The test persons must fulfill certain requirements, for example regarding their sensitivity of odor perception. The main panel calibration gas to verify this requirement used is n-Butanol (as 1 OUE/m3≡40 ppb/v n-butanol).[17]

To collect an odor sample, the samples must be collected using specialized sample bags, which are made from an odor free material e.g. Teflon. The most accepted technique for collecting odor samples is the lung technique, where the sample bag is placed in a sealed drum, and a vacuum is placed on the drum, which fills the sample bag as the bag expands, and draws the sample from the source into the bag. Critically, all components which touch the odor sample, must be odor free, which includes sample lines and fittings.

A human's odor detection threshold is variable. Repeated exposure to an odorant leads to enhanced olfactory sensitivity and decreased detection thresholds for a number of different odorants.[18] It was found in a study that humans that were completely unable to detect the odor of androstenone developed the ability to detect it after repeated exposure.[19]

Humans can discriminate between two odorants that differ in concentration by as little as 7%.[20]

There are a number of issues which have to be overcome with sampling, these include: - If the source is under vacuum - if the source is at a high temperature - If the source has high humidity

Issues such as temperature and humidity are best overcome using either pre-dilution or dynamic dilution techniques.


Odor intensity is the perceived strength of odor sensation. This intensity property is used to locate the source of odors and perhaps most directly related to odor nuisance.[5]

Perceived strength of the odor sensation is measured in conjunction with odor concentration. This can be modeled by the Weber-Fechner law: I= a * log(c)+b[21]

I is the perceived psychological intensity at the dilution step on the butanol scale, a is the Weber-Fechner coefficient, C is the chemical concentrations, and b is the intercept constant (0.5 by definition)[21]

Odor intensity can be expressed using an odor intensity scale, which is a verbal description of an odor sensation to which a numerical value is assigned.[21]

Odor intensity can be divided into the following categories according to intensity:

0 - no odor
1 - very weak (odor threshold)
2 - weak
3 - distinct
4 - strong
5 - very strong
6 - intolerable

This method is applied by in the laboratory and is done so by a series of suitably trained panelists/observers who have been trained to appropriately define intensity.

Hedonic tone assessment

Hedonic assessment is the process of scaling odors on a scale ranging from extremely unpleasant via neutral up to extremely pleasant. It is important to note that intensity and hedonic tone, whilst similar, refer to different things. That is, the strength of the odor (intensity) and the pleasantness of an odor (hedonic tone). Moreover, it is important to note that perception of an odor may change from pleasant to unpleasant with increasing concentration, intensity, time, frequency, and previous experience with a specific odor; all factors determining a response.[22]

The overall set of qualities are sometimes identified as the "FIDOL factors", (short for Frequency, Intensity, Duration, Offensiveness and Location).[23]


The character of an odor is a critical element in assessing an odor. This property is the ability to distinguish different odors and is only descriptive. First a basic description is used such as sweet, pungent, acrid, fragrant, warm, dry, or sour. The odor is then referenced to a source such as sewage or apple which can then be followed by a reference to a specific chemical such as acids or gasoline.[5]

Most commonly, a set of standard descriptors is used, which may range from fragrant to sewer odor.[24] Although the method is fairly simplistic, it is important for the FIDOL factors to be understood by the person recording the character. This method is most commonly used to define the character of an odor which can then be compared to other odors. It is common for olfactometry laboratories to report character as an additional factor post sample analysis.

Interpreting dispersion modeling

In many countries odor modeling is used to determine the extent of an impact from an odor source. These are a function of modeled concentration, averaging time (over what time period the model steps are run over (typically hourly) and a percentile. Percentiles refer to a statistical representation of how many hours per year, the concentration C may be exceeded based on the averaging period.

Sampling from area sources

There are two main odor sampling techniques, the direct odor sampling and the indirect odor sampling technique. Indirect refers to collecting samples from the air stream which has already passed over the emitting surface.

Direct sampling

Direct refers to the placement of an enclosure on or over an emitting surface from which samples are collected, and an odor emission rate is determined.

The most commonly used direct methods include the Flux Chamber[25] and wind tunnels which include the UNSW Wind tunnel.[26] There are many other available techniques, and consideration should be given to a number of factors before selecting a suitable method.

A source which has implications for this method are sources such as bark bed biofilters, which have a vertical velocity component. For such sources, consideration needs to be given as to the most appropriate method. A commonly used technique is to measure the odor concentration at the emitting surface, and combine this with the volumetric flow rate of air entering the biofilter to produce an emission rate.

Indirect sampling

Indirect sampling is often referred to as back calculation. It involves the use of a mathematical formula to predict an emission rate.

Many methods are used, but all make use of the same inputs which include - Surface roughness - Upwind and down wind concentrations - Stability class (or other similar factor) - Wind speed and direction

In the indoor environment

The human sense of smell is a primary factor in the sensation of comfort. Olfaction as a sensory system brings awareness of the presence of airborne chemicals. Some inhaled chemicals are volatile compounds that act as a stimulus, triggering unwanted reactions such as nose, eye, and throat irritation. Perception of odor and of irritation is unique to each person, and varies because of physical conditions or memory of past exposures to similar chemicals. A person's specific threshold before an odor becomes a nuisance depends also on the frequency, concentration, and duration of an odor.

The perception of irritation from odor sensation is hard to investigate because exposure to a volatile chemical elicits a different response based on sensory and physiological signals, and interpretation of these signals influenced by experience, expectations, personality or situational factors. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) may have higher concentrations in confined indoor environments due to restricted infiltration of fresh air, as compared to the outdoor environment; leading to greater potential for toxic health exposures from a variety of chemical compounds. Health effects of odor are traced to the sensation of an odor or the odorant itself. Health effects and symptoms vary, including eye, nose, or throat irritation, cough, chest tightness, drowsiness, and mood change; all of which decrease as an odor ceases. Odors may also trigger illnesses such as asthma, depression, stress induced illness, or hypersensitivity. Ability to perform tasks may decrease, and other social/behavioral changes may occur.

Occupants should expect remediation from disturbing and unexpected odors that disturb concentration, diminish productivity, evoke symptoms, and generally increase the dislike for a particular environment. It is important to set occupational exposure limits (OELs) to ensure the health and safety or workers as well as comfort, because exposure to chemicals can elicit physiological and biochemical changes in the upper respiratory system. Standards are hard to set when exposures are not reported and can also be hard to measure. Work force populations vary in levels of discomfort from odors because of exposure history or habituation, and they may not realize possible risks of exposure to chemicals that produce specific odors.[27][28]

Legislative provisions

While developing environmental legislation in Germany, it was noted that there was a need for a method to accurately measure odor. Since that time, the following laws have been established:

  1. "refinery guideline" (early 1970s)
  2. federal emission protection law (1974)
  3. technical guideline to keep the air fresh
  4. olfactory emission guideline (early 1980s until 1998)

Barriers around the sources of the odors have turned out to be badly feasible. defensive walls, plantings etc. are little effective, whereas plantations are, after all, often at least perceived as a remarkable factor.

The only workable principle is, so far, to place the sources of the odors far enough from anybody who could feel disturbed, and to pay attention to the prevailing wind direction. Also diluting the emissions with a large air flow promises so be an effective way to avoid complicated and expensive technical measures.

Encapsulating of olfactorily relevant asset areas is only theoretically the ideal method to reduce the emission. Within an enclosure, damp and an oppressive atmosphere can arise, so that the inner materials of the capsule produce a strong mechanical stress. Encapsulating even brings about a noteworthy explosion hazard.

For encapsulation to be viable, there must be some way to exhaust the spent air. Odorants remain inside the medium and tend to leak at the next suitable spot. The encapsulated space is never really gas-proof, and at some spots substances may leak out at considerably higher concentrations than they would do without the made efforts to hold them back.

There are three different ways exhausted air may be treated:

  • chemical treatment
  • physical treatment
  • biological treatment


Some odors such as perfumes and flowers are sought after, with elite varieties commanding high prices. Whole industries have developed around products to remove unpleasant odors (see deodorant). The perception of odors is also very much dependent upon circumstance and culture. The odor of cooking processes may be pleasurable while one is cooking, but not necessarily after the meal.

The odor molecules transmit messages to the limbic system, the area of the brain that governs emotional responses. Some believe that these messages have the power to alter moods, evoke distant memories, raise their spirits, and boost self-confidence. This belief has led to the concept of "aromatherapy" wherein fragrances are claimed to cure a wide range of psychological and physical problems. Aromatherapy claims that fragrances can positively affect sleep, stress, alertness, social interaction, and general feelings of well-being. However, the evidence for the effectiveness of aromatherapy consists mostly of anecdotes and lacks controlled scientific studies to back up its claims.

With some fragrances, such as those found in perfume, scented shampoo, scented deodorant, or similar products, people can be allergic to the ingredients. The reaction, as with other chemical allergies, can be anywhere from a slight headache to anaphylactic shock, which can result in death.

Unpleasant odors play various roles in nature, often to warn of danger, though this may not be known to the subject who smells it.[29] An odor that is viewed as unpleasant by some people or cultures can be viewed as attractive by others where there is more familiarity or a better reputation.[29]

It is commonly viewed[by whom?] that those holding an unpleasant body odor will be unattractive to others. But studies have shown that a person who is exposed to a particular unpleasant odor can be attracted to others who have been exposed to the same unpleasant odor.[29] This includes smells associated with pollution.[29]

What actually causes a substance to smell unpleasant may be different from what one perceives. For example, perspiration is often viewed as having an unpleasant odor, but it is actually odorless. It is the bacteria in the perspiration that cause the odor.[30]

Unpleasant odors can arise from specific industrial processes, adversely affecting workers and even residents downwind of the industry. The most common sources of industrial odor arise from sewage treatment plants, refineries, animal rendering factories, and industries processing chemicals (such as sulfur) which have odorous characteristics. Sometimes industrial odor sources are the subject of community controversy and scientific analysis.

Body odor is present both in animals and humans and its intensity can be influenced by many factors (behavioral patterns, survival strategies). Body odor has a strong genetic basis both in animals and humans, but it can be also strongly influenced by various diseases and psychological conditions.


The study of odors is a growing field but is a complex and difficult one. The human olfactory system can detect many thousands of scents based on only very minute airborne concentrations of a chemical. The sense of smell of many animals is even better. Some fragrant flowers give off odor plumes that move downwind and are detectable by bees more than a kilometer away.

The study of odors can also get complicated because of the complex chemistry taking place at the moment of a smell sensation. For example iron-containing metallic objects are perceived to have a distinctive odor when touched, although iron's vapor pressure is negligible. According to a 2006 study[31] this smell is the result of aldehydes (for example nonanal) and ketones (example: 1-octen-3-one) released from the human skin on contact with ferrous ions that are formed in the sweat-mediated corrosion of iron. The same chemicals are also associated with the smell of blood, as ferrous iron in blood on skin produces the same reaction.


Pheromones are odors that are used for communication, and are sometimes called "airborne hormones". A female moth may release a pheromone that can entice a male moth that is several kilometers downwind. Honeybee queens constantly release pheromones that regulate the activity of the hive. Workers can release such smells to call other bees into an appropriate cavity when a swarm moves into new quarters, or to "sound" an alarm when the hive is threatened.

Advanced technology

There are hopes that advanced technology could do everything from testing perfumes to helping detect cancer or explosives by detecting specific scents, but artificial noses are still problematic. The complex nature of the human nose, its ability to detect even the most subtle of scents, is at the present moment difficult to replicate.

Most artificial or electronic nose instruments work by combining output from an array of non-specific chemical sensors to produce a finger print of whatever volatile chemicals it is exposed to. Most electronic noses need to be "trained" to recognize whatever chemicals are of interest for the application in question before it can be used. The training involves exposure to chemicals with the response being recorded and statistically analyzed, often using multivariate analysis and neural network techniques, to "learn" the chemicals. Many current electronic nose instruments suffer from problems with reproducibility subject to varying ambient temperature and humidity. An example of this type of technology is the colorimetric sensor array, which visualizes odor through color change and creates a "picture" of it.[32] [33][34][35][36][37]

Behavioral cues

Odor perception is a complex process involving the central nervous system that can evoke psychological and physiological responses. Because the olfactory signal terminates in or near the amygdala odors are strongly linked to memories and can evoke emotions. The amygdala participates in the hedonic or emotional processing of olfactory stimuli.[38] Odors can disturb our concentration, diminish productivity, evoke symptoms, and, in general, increase a dislike for a particular environment. Odors can impact the liking for a person, place, food, or product as a form of conditioning.[39] Memories recalled by odors are significantly more emotional and evocative than those recalled by the same cue presented visually or auditorily.[40] Odors can become conditioned to experiential states and when later encountered have directional influences on behavior. Doing a frustrating task in a scented room decreases performance of other cognitive tasks with the presence of the same odor.[41] Nonhuman animals communicate their emotional states through changes in body odor and human body odors are indicative of emotional state.[42]

Human body odors influence interpersonal relationships. Human body odors are involved in adaptive behaviors, such as parental attachment in infants or partner choice in adults. "Mothers can discriminate the odor of their own child, and infants recognize and prefer the body odor of their mother over that of another woman. This maternal odor appears to guide infants toward the breast and to have a calming effect." Body odor is involved in the development of infant–mother attachment and is essential to a child’s social and emotional development bringing feelings of security. Reassurance created by familiar parental body odors may contribute significantly to the attachment process.[43]

How a man smells is critical for woman to find a lover. Body odor is a sensory cue critical for mate selection because it is a signal of immunological health. Women prefer men with major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genotypes and odor different than themselves especially during ovulation. Different MHC alleles are favorable because different allele combinations would maximize disease protection and minimize recessive mutations in offspring. Biologically females tend to select mates "who are most likely to secure offspring survival and thus increase the likelihood that her genetic contribution will be reproductively viable." [44]

Studies have suggested that people might be using odor cues associated with the immune system to select mates. Using a brain imaging technique, Swedish researchers have shown that gay and straight males' brains respond differently to two odors that may be involved in sexual arousal, and that the gay men respond in the same way as straight women, though it could not be determined whether this was cause or effect. The study was expanded to include lesbian women; the results were consistent with previous findings meaning that lesbian women were not as responsive to male identified odors, while their response to female cues was similar to straight males.[45] According to the researchers, this research suggests a possible role for human pheromones in the biological basis of sexual orientation.[46]

An odor can cue recall of a distant memory. Most memories that pertain to odor come from the first decade of life, compared to verbal and visual memories which usually come from the 10th to 30th years of life.[47] Odor-evoked memories are more emotional, associated with stronger feelings of being brought back in time, and have been thought of less often as compared to memories evoked by other cues.[48]

Use in design

The sense of smell is often overlooked as a way of marketing products. The deliberate and controlled application of scent is used by designers, scientists, artists, perfumers, architects and chefs. Some applications of scents in environments are in casinos, hotels, private clubs and new automobiles. For example, "technicians at New York City’s Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center disperse vanilla-scented oil into the air to help patients cope with the claustrophobic effects of MRI testing. Scents are used at the Chicago Board of Trade to lower the decibel level on the trading floor."[49]

If ingredients are listed on a product, the term "fragrance" can be used in a general sense.

See also



Further reading

  • — A survey of current olfactory knowledge, experimental investigation of computer-based olfactory interfaces. Includes extensive reference list, partially annotated.

External links

  • Answers to several questions from curious kids about smells and odors
  • American Assoc. for Chemoreception Sciences society
  • Structure-Odor Relationships
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