Weizmann Institute of Science

According to new research out of the Weizmann Institute in Israel, our senses of smell are so unique they could identify us the way fingerprints do—in other words, only you smell the way you smell. Trippy.

In a press release announcing the study, the Institute explained that "each of us has, in our nose, about six million smell receptors of around four hundred different types. The distribution of these receptors varies from person to person—so much so that each person's sense of smell may be unique."


According to the paper detailing results published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), people do generally smell things the same way. But the devil is in the details:

"The average description of an odorant using common descriptors is a pretty good estimation of what any given individual will say about that odor [but]… we found that across the 89 subjects we tested [in experiment 1A], no two subjects had the same fingerprint."

To figure out the differences between individual sensitivity to scent, the authors asked subjects to rate 28 smells (like burnt rubber, sweat, maple, rose, and so on) according to 54 predetermined descriptors (like "floral," "salty," "erotic," "familiar," and so on). They used each person's response to develop a matrix, which they described in the paper:

"We derived fingerprints using a matrix of perceived odor similarities. We used a palette of 28 odors… that provided for 378 pairwise similarities (28 × 27/2 = 378). Such a 378-dimensional olfactory fingerprint allows for potential characterization of a practically infinite number of individuals."


The scientists add that there could be some health benefits to mapping out these differences. The way we smell, scientists say, can tell us about diseases and predict our health. And there could be other benefits as well. According to Science News, co-author Noam Sobel says an olfactory fingerprint could be used to developed sent-centric social networks.

We're ready for you, Smellbook.

Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.