UC Berkeley professor, team receive grant to study smell

Kore Chan/Senior Staff

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UC Berkeley psychology professor Lucia Jacobs, along with a team of professors from across the country, received a $6.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study how humans and animals process and identify odors.

The project formed in June at the NSF’s Olfactory Ideas Lab, a workshop that gathered an interdisciplinary group of professors that formed five teams and developed innovative proposals for understanding the neural coding of odors. Jacobs’ team was one of three selected for funding under President Barack Obama’s BRAIN initiative, a federal grant project making investments in research.

The team will be uncovering the algorithmic and mechanistic processes behind the sense of smell shared among all humans and animals. The findings may be used to create devices that replicate an animal’s keen sense of smell.

“As soon as there is a disaster, one of the first responses is to bring trained dogs to find people under fallen buildings,” Jacobs said. “Dogs are used to detect cancer on a patient — not to mention dogs sniffing drugs at the airport and contraband and landmines. There’s all these things that are really important to society, and yet we don’t understand how animals are doing it.”

Smell is the least studied of the five senses, according to G. Bard Ermentrout, a professor of computational biology and mathematics at the University of Pittsburgh and a member of the team.

Technical breakthroughs in the neuroscience and microbiology fields, however, now enable the researchers to study the olfactory system more deeply.

Unlike most previous olfactory research, this project plans to construct a way to measure and understand how an organism would interact with the natural world in terms of smell.

“The immediate general impact is solving what’s still, to us, a bit of a mystery,” said John Ngai, UC Berkeley professor of neurobiology and a scientific mentor at the Ideas Lab. “There’s a general problem of how sensory systems encode and decode information to drive behavior. Using natural stimuli on diverse organisms should give us some pretty good insight.”

Jacobs plans to extend beyond domesticated lab species, such as mice and flies, to study the behaviors of invertebrates (such as cockroaches, hermit crabs and slugs), humans and trained search dogs.

Other researchers will study the detailed neuroscience level of olfaction, develop technologies to visualize and quantitatively image odors, and build algorithms for locating an odor in space.

“This funding opportunity will foster relationships and collaborations between people of very different fields who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to work together,” said John Crimaldi, a professor of  engineering at the University of Colorado and a member of the team. “The synergies that are formed from those relationships should hopefully lead to big breakthroughs in scientific findings.”

Contact Amelia Mineiro at [email protected].