How fine is my sense of smell and taste?


Each of us perceives smells and tastes differently. For certain flavours, these differences are particularly pronounced and strongly determined by our genes. During the Zurich science event “Scientifica 2017”, visitors had the opportunity to test their perception of smell and taste in a workshop.

The MiSens study investigates how people differ from each other in their perception of taste and smell. The long-term goal of the entire project is to understand the genetic basis for these differences. A further goal of the study is to compare the quality of data from participants’ self-testing with data collected under consistent and closely supervised laboratory conditions.

In the study, the sensitivity with which participants perceive different smells and flavours is determined. Two types of tests are carried out for this purpose. In the first test, the intensity of tastes or odour samples is assessed according to a scale. In the second test, the participants identify from several samples the sample that contains the respective taste or odorant. For the taste tests, the samples consist of a small volume (approx. 10 ml) of flavours dissolved in water. The samples must be well distributed in the mouth and can then be spat out again, similar to a wine tasting. For the odour tests, the samples are presented in felt-tip pen-like “sniff sticks” at the tip of which the participants can smell.

With additional information from the participants, the individual ability to perceive smell and taste will be classified. The influencing factors include age, sex, the number of root canal treatments and extracted wisdom teeth (these dental procedures often damage the nerve tracts between tongue and brain), and preferences for bitter foods.

The app provided for the study stores the data in a personal data account on the MIDATA platform. The data are encrypted and only accessible to the participants of the study. The data is only released for analysis after explicit access rights have been granted. This activation can be revoked at any time. For the analysis of the data, an anonymous copy of the data stored on the MIDATA platform is generated and made available to the researcher at ETH.


MiSens at Scientifica 2017

Conception and study management

Prof. Ernst Hafen & Ulrich Genick, Ph.D.,
ETH Zürich, Institut für molekulare Systembiologie IMSB
ernst.hafen@imsb.biol.ethz.ch & ulrich.genick@imsb.biol.ethz.ch

App concept and processes

François von Kaenel & Olivier Descloux
Berner Fachhochschule, Institute for Medical Informatics I4MI, Biel

App development

Lorenz Widmer
ETH Zürich, Institut für molekulare Systembiologie IMSB

Data stewardship

Dr. Dominik Steiger
MIDATA, www.midata.coop, info@midata.coop

Project partners

The MIDATA data platform enables members of the public to compile their health records in a secure personal account free of charge and to determine if and how they are used in research projects. In this way, they can act as «citizen scientists», making an active contribution to medical research.
MIDATA serves as a data repository for its members and other participating members of the public. It is a non-profit cooperative facility that operates without offering financial incentives, similarly to blood donation services, for instance. The account holders are not paid for their intentional and voluntary «data donation». The revenue generated from the integration of their data into a scientific study is reinvested in the services offered on the platform and in a variety of smaller research projects. Start-ups, IT service providers and research groups can use the platform to offer mobile apps, such as health apps or apps for treating and monitoring patients with chronic illnesses. MIDATA is currently being used in a number of scientific health projects. In one particular project being conducted at University Hospital Zurich, for example, multiple sclerosis patients are being included in a study into the effect of treatments, which uses a tablet app to test their cognitive and motor skills. A further project, currently in development at ETH Zurich, will look at different training methods and the impact they have on muscle growth. More and more projects are being run that are directed at a wide section of the population and are of value to many – as is the case with the «Ally Science» project.


The Bern University of Applied Sciences (BFH) offers an innovative didactic approach aimed at teaching, R&D and continuous training, using practical exercises to prepare students for professional activities in which scientific knowledge and methods are required.
Freedom and individual responsibility, entrepreneurial spirit and open-mindedness: ETH Zurich stands on a bedrock of true Swiss values. Our university for science and technology dates back to the year 1855, when the founders of modern-day Switzerland created it as a centre of innovation and knowledge.
At ETH Zurich, students discover an ideal environment for independent thinking, researchers a climate which inspires top performance. Situated in the heart of Europe, yet forging connections all over the world, ETH Zurich is pioneering effective solutions to the global challenges of today and tomorrow.


Since 2011, ETH Zurich and Zurich University invite the public to experience science in a yearly event. Scientifica events are devoted to focus topics which reflect research of the two universities.