The study gives the nose some long overdue credit—The Washington Post notes previous estimates, for decades, capped the number of smells we can distinguish at 10,000.
"The 10,000-smell estimate stems from an outdated 1927 manuscript by two American chemists. They came up with an odor classification system based on four primary smells ... with a total of 6,561 possible different smells. Later, that number was rounded up to 10,000."
A smell scientist told HealthDay, since the study limited itself to 128 basic components, 1 trillion smells might be just the beginning of what our noses can accomplish.
"If you were to do a test involving all kinds of intensities and many more components, you'd arrive at a figure that is probably much, much higher than a trillion. ... I'd say that a trillion is probably a severe underestimate of our ability to smell."
The study was published Thursday in the journal Science.