by Amy Olson

The clouds of cigarette smoke that fill bars often conjure alternate memories and smell differently than the sweet smell of tobacco smoldering in a grandfather’s pipe.
But scientists now have reason to believe the chemical structure of the two scents, as well as others, might be more similar than they originally thought.
The development of sensory systems, including the sense of smell, was the focus of a developmental biology symposium that began Monday at the Earle Brown Center on the St. Paul campus.
More than 250 faculty members and undergraduate and graduate students gathered to hear lectures by eight researchers from the United States and Europe at the first sessions of the two-day symposium.
Linda Buck, a neurobiology professor at Harvard University, has studied olfactory senses, or the sense of smell, for more than a decade.
Buck said while olfactory senses are one of the oldest vertebrate senses, it has been the least understood because of its chemical nature.
She said slight changes in the chemical structure of scents, called odorants, can make the difference between what smells like peach and what smells like a banana.
The symposium itself is as multidisciplinary as its sponsor, the Center for Developmental Biology. The center is comprised of faculty from the Medical School, the College of Biological Sciences and the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences.
This is the University’s seventh developmental biology symposium.
The conference gives attending students an opportunity to present the results of their research.
“Developmental biology is a subject that touches almost all fields,” said Christopher Wylie, director of the University’s Center for Developmental Biology.
Wylie explained that while developmental biology involves researchers in scientific disciplines from anatomy and chemistry to physics and pharmacology, the University has no organized developmental biology department.
Before Wylie came to the University in 1994, the University held two symposiums on the subject.
Each year the center recruits faculty from institutions like Harvard, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Zurich to present their research. Wylie said the interaction with researchers from other countries is beneficial for graduate students, who can learn from exchanging ideas and techniques.
For Amila Silva, a fifth-year medical Ph.D. student studying developmental neuroscience, the symposium presents an opportunity to network with and learn from neuroscience researchers like Christine Petit, from the Pasteur Institute in Paris.
“It’s a great opportunity for graduate students,” Silva said, explaining that meeting researchers face-to-face often opens the door to future collaboration.