Biology Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences Dedman College Research Faculty News

Gene allowing humans to feel touch may play a role in sense of smell

SMU News:

SMU research could lead to treatment for common COVID side effect

Can you smell those roses? There’s a real possibility that the gene that helps you experience their heavenly fragrance may also help you feel the prick of their thorns.

Researchers from SMU (Southern Methodist University) have determined that a gene linked to feeling touch may moonlight as an olfactory gene. That’s the conclusion drawn from studying a very small, transparent worm that shares many similarities with the human nervous system.

“This gene has previously been identified as a potential therapeutic target for chronic pain. Now that we know the gene is also involved in olfaction, it might present an opportunity for treating or understanding olfactory defects, such as the mysterious loss of smell that many COVID-19 patients have reported,” said SMU’s Adam D. Norris, co-author of a study published in the journal Nucleic Acids Research.

Norris is the Floyd B. James Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at SMU. He worked with SMU graduate students Xiaoyu Liang and Canyon Calovich-Benne, who are the lead authors of the study. Both are studying to get a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences.

Touch is one of the human body’s most important senses, yet there is a lot we still don’t understand, Norris says.

Scientists know that when we touch something, our nervous system takes the mechanical input it gets from touch receptors in our skin and converts it into electrical signals to the brain. This is known as mechanosensation and it’s what allows the brain to tell us a variety of things about that touch, such as whether the object we touched was hot or cold or – in the case of a rose’s thorns – sharp.

But the exact mechanics of “what’s going on beneath the hood” during this electrical response to touch is poorly understood, because the human nervous system is so complex. READ MORE