Predicting Human Olfactory Perception from Activities of Odorant Receptors

Joel Kowalewski, Anandasankar Ray


Odor perception in humans is initiated by activation of odorant receptors (ORs) in the nose. However, the ORs linked to specific olfactory percepts are unknown, unlike in vision or taste where receptors are linked to perception of different colors and tastes. The large family of ORs (~400) and multiple receptors activated by an odorant present serious challenges. Here, we first use machine learning to screen ~0.5 million compounds for new ligands and identify enriched structural motifs for ligands of 34 human ORs. We next demonstrate that the activity of ORs successfully predicts many of the 146 different perceptual qualities of chemicals. Although chemical features have been used to model odor percepts, we show that biologically relevant OR activity is often superior. Interestingly, each odor percept could be predicted with very few ORs, implying they contribute more to each olfactory percept. A similar model is observed in Drosophila where comprehensive OR-neuron data are available.

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Joel Kowalewski, Anandasankar Ray,
Aug. 2020.