Tom McCloud mccloud at dtpax2.ncifcrf.gov
Tue Oct 10 10:38:19 EST 1995

    The ability to recognize the distinctive odors of volitile organic 
compounds is certainly an asset to microbiologists and can aid in identifying 
an organism, and it is also a valuable tool to organic & natural products 
chemists.  Characteristic mixtures of odors of esters, ketones, etc. are what 
gives foods, perfumes etc. their desirable or unpleasant aromas, (i.e. fresh 
vs. old fish,   or a fresh bread/mouldy bread odor).   Certainly there are 
people who have highly developed odor-detecting abilities and they are mostly 
employed in the food, flavor and fragrance industries.      It is my 
experience that  university and industry safety offices tend to discourage 
sniffing, and there is some merit in this.   Like most old-time natural 
products persons I often sniffed extracts, and on one occasion had one with a 
very strong, pleasant chocolate aroma.  Several weeks later when I got 
cytotoxicity testing results back I learned that this extract was toxic at 
10-4 ug/ml to a human cell line.  In this case is is unlikely that the toxic 
component was the volitile component, but you never know.   And it was 
mentioned in the recent book, "The Hot Zone",  that some tissue culture flasks 
that 'looked funny' were smelled to determine whether bacterial contamination 
had crept in----and it was not until several days later after electron 
photomicrographs had been taken that a strain of Ebola was detected in the 
tissue culture.     There are a few microorganisms which produce cyanide, the 
'bitter almond' odor: I don't know if the amount in the headspace in the flask 
 would ever reach a lethal concentration.  I don't think I'm ready to 
completely stop sniffing yet,  but there are some risks.   Tom  McCloud

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