Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Skunkfather

Sometimes, a blocked nose is a good thing to have. This includes instances when a skunk has just vented its displeasure in the vicinity of your abode, which is what happened last night around 1 am. Both Christina and I happened to be semi-awake and she got a whiff of it first and it pretty much woke her up all the way. Now, bear in mind that our apartment is on the third floor and we didn’t have any windows open, so, assuming that we’re not dealing with a monkey skunk [or skunk monkey], the smell must have diffused up 3 floors and through some pretty small cracks and yet was still strong enough to cause Christina to want to cut off her nose. I didn’t actually really smell it because I still have a cold, but even I could tell it was a mighty discharge indeed. Ten hours later, the smell still lingers, which causes me to conclude that this wasn't just any skunk, but rather The Skunkfather, who occupies a position in the skunk pantheon of deities similar to the one occupied by Odin All-Father in Norse mythology. In any case, while Christina was gasping for air, we had a brief conversation on skunk-generated topics. Some highlights:

- Christina thinks that there must be some way of extracting energy from something that smelly and she’s probably right. I wonder how hard it would be to get funding for a project designed to extract energy from skunk juice. I guess there’s the cow dung-methane precedent for trying to extract good things from bad smells.
- Somehow, we got on to the topic of spider silk and the fact that people are trying to get goats to produce spider silk in their milk [that link, btw, is courtesy of "Capricorn Publications -- The largest circulation goat magazine in the world". What an awesome tag line.]. That brought to mind the image of Spidergoat, Spiderman’s animal sidekick.
- Another good point from Christina: if a cat gets sprayed by a skunk, it has to lick it off. That sounds like just about the worst thing in the world.
- I was wondering what the effect of the smell was on the puppy that our neighbors have. As in, do dogs ever smell something and think “Daaaaammmnnn, what the hell is that awful %#$%#$ smell ?”. Once again, Christina provided insight: dogs seek out dead things and roll in them, so it’s probably fair to say that if there are smells they dislike, they’re not the same ones that humans dislike. [She was on a roll. Like I said, the smell –really- woke her up ...]

Some random biological facts about smell:
- Smell receptors are instances of what are called “G-protein coupled receptors” (aka GPCRs). GPCRs are one of the three largest classes of receptors in humans, and most/many drugs target GPCRs.
- Smell desensitization: in theory, persistent exposure to a smell makes you less sensitive to it due to something called "receptor desensitization". Basically, the GPCRs that detect the odorant molecules stop responding as strongly as they initially did. This happens in a few ways [for example, the GPCR is "endocytosed" ie sucked into the cell so it can't react with any more smelly stuff], but they're all triggered by detecting the smell in the first place. In other words, it's one of the many examples of negative feedback mechanisms in biological systems: one of the chemicals produced in a particular set of reactions ends up stopping the reactions. Unfortunately, there wasn't a whole lot of "receptor desensitization" happening for Christina last night.
- Here's a nice article on the chemical components of skunk spray of various skunk species. Also includes helpful hints about how to defunkify pets that have been caught in the toxic emission. Personally, if one of our cats got sprayed, I'd wait a bit before detoxifying it [while keeping it outside] just to see what kind of face it made when it tried to lick itself.


Anonymous Bill Tozier said...

Smell desensitization works on the same premise as caffeine addiction, as I recall. Check your copy of Voet & Voet :)

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