2012 Sterling B. Hendricks Memorial Lectureship

Sponsored by the USDA-Agricultural Research Service
Co-sponsored by AGFD & AGRO Divisions

Fifty years of smelling sulfur: From Allium chemistry to olfactory detection of sulfur compounds

Dr. Eric BlockDr. Eric Block is a world authority on garlic science and is the Carla Rizzo Delray Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University at Albany, State University of New York. The New York Times called his 2010 454 page book Garlic and Other Alliums: The Lore and the Science (published by the Royal Society of Chemistry) “the definitive word on the alliums.” Block, born in New York City, received a B.S. in chemistry from Queens College of the City University of New York, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He received an M.S. and Ph.D. in chemistry from Harvard University, where he worked with 1990 Nobel Laureate E.J. Corey, and where he held both NSF and NIH pre-doctoral fellowships. Prior to his appointment at the University at Albany in 1981, Block was a faculty member at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

A member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry since 1994, Block has been Visiting Professor at Harvard, the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and Cambridge University in the UK, and a consultant to numerous major corporations. Eric Block was the 1984 recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, the 1987 recipient of the American Chemical Society’s Award for Advancement of Application of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the 1994 recipient of the International Council on Main Group Chemistry Award for Excellence in Main Group Chemistry Research, the 2003 recipient of the Kenneth C. Spencer Award of the Kansas City Section of the ACS, and was named a Fellow of the Division of Agricultural and Food Chemistry of the ACS in 1993. He is the author of 237 scientific papers, 8 patents, and 4 books, many of which deal with garlic and other alliums, and the chemistry of the elements sulfur and selenium. His current research focuses on the molecular basis of the sense of smell and use of non-natural selenoamino acids in determination of protein structure. Block has trained more than 60 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows during his 45 years in academia.

Selected accomplishments include:

  • determination of the structure of the lachrymatory factor of the onion and its dimer;
  • demonstration of bird repellent properties of garlic oil;
  • identification and synthesis of the garlic anticlotting and anticancer agent ajoene, and bis-sulfine, cepaenes, and zwiebelanes, biologically active flavorants from onion;
  • identification of natural trace level organoselenium compounds found in Allium volatiles and in human garlic breath;
  • a clinical trial on the effectiveness of garlic and garlic supplements as lipid-lowering agents; and
  • examination of intact onion cells using synchrotron radiation techniques and direct detection of highly reactive compounds from alliums using DART mass spectrometry.

Recent research by Block and colleagues on olfaction (PNAS 2012, 109, 3492-7) established that copper is required for olfactory detection of (methylthio)methanethiol (“MTMT”), the mouse semiochemical he identified with Duke University colleagues (Nature 2005, 434, 470-7).