C&EN: Chemists Propose Unifying Theory of Musk

The human brain registers at least four classes of compounds as the scent we call musk. Structurally, these compounds look nothing alike, yet they smell the same: gamy, rich, and leathery.

Researchers at Duke University and Kao Corporation, a chemical and consumer products company in Tokyo, now report that the four types of molecules all activate one olfactory receptor. The team also used the structures of the molecules that activate the receptor to predict other musk-scented molecules (Curr. Biol. 2022, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2022.10.038).

“Musks are some of the most profitable chemicals in the perfume industry,” says Joel D. Mainland, an olfaction researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center who was not involved in the study. The chemicals are used in soaps, detergents, and even cat litter. However, some of them bioaccumulate and may pose a risk of cancer, prompting a hunt for alternatives.

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