The sense of smell is mediated by the detection of chemical odours by ORs (olfactory receptors) in the nose. This initiates a neural percept of the odour in the brain, which may provoke an emotional or behavioural response. Analogous to colour-blindness in the visual system, some individuals report a very different percept of specific odours to others, in terms of intensity, valence or detection threshold. A significant proportion of variance in odour perception is heritable, and recent advances in genome sequencing and genotyping technologies have permitted studies into the genes that underpin these phenotypic differences. In the present article, I review the evidence that OR genes are extremely variable between individuals. I argue that this contributes to a unique receptor repertoire in our noses that provides us each with a personalized perception of our environment. I highlight specific examples where known OR variants influence odour detection and discuss the wider implications of this for both humans and other mammals that use chemical communication for social interaction.

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