The human olfactory system can recognize and discriminate a large number of different odorant molecules. The detection of chemically distinct odorants begins with the binding of an odorant ligand to a specific receptor protein on the olfactory neuron cell surface. To address the problem of olfactory perception at a molecular level, we have cloned, functionally expressed and characterized the first human olfactory receptor (OR 17-40). Application of a mixture of hundred different odorants elicited a transient increase in intracellular calcium at HEK 293-cells which were transfected with a plasmid containing the receptor encoding DNA and a membrane import sequence. By subdividing the odorant mixture in smaller groups we could identify a single component which represented the only effective substance: helional. Testing some structurally closely related molecules we found only one other compound which also could activate the receptor: heliotropyl acetone. All other compounds tested were completely ineffective. These findings represent the beginning of molecular understanding of odorant recognition in humans.