We use olfaction, our sense of smell, to recognize the chemical composition of our surrounding. Despite its importance for all animals, from bacteria to humans, smell is the sense we understand the least. For instance, we do not know how our nose discerns mixtures of the about 10,000 chemicals that we can smell. Another open questions is how different concentrations of smells are distinguished. All this information about an odor must be encoded in the activity pattern of the about 300 different receptor types in a human's nose.
We study the olfactory system by investigating theoretical models of the receptors. We would like to understand how the typically complex odors, consisting of various substrates at different concentrations, are processed. Furthermore, some substrates often appear together in odors, for instance because the originate from the same biological process. Clearly, typical odor mixtures also vary from place to place and from season to season. This structure in typical odor mixtures has likely played a role in evolution to optimize the receptors. By studying simple model as well as naturally occurring receptors, we will uncover design principles of the olfactory system, which can then be used to improved artificial smell sensors.