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Does body odor stink? It depends on your genes

A component can be smelled as sweet, foul or not at all, study says.

September 22, 2007|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

A component of body odor can be perceived as sweet like vanilla, foul like urine or like nothing at all depending on what kind of genes a person carries, according to a new study.

The study, published online this week by the journal Nature, is the first to demonstrate a human gene's influence on odor perception, said Charles Wysocki, a neuroscientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia who was not involved in the study.

Geneticist Hiro Matsunami of Duke University and colleagues tested 400 people for their sensitivity to a compound called androstenone, which is produced in the body in the same process that produces testosterone and is often found in sweat and urine.

The researchers gave the subjects a selection of about 150 words to describe the smell. They collected blood from the participants and sequenced about 335 genes involved in odor detection.

"People knew some people could smell androstenone and others could not smell it, but they didn't know why," Matsunami said.

The researchers focused on two main variations of a gene that controls how the nose detects androstenone. The variations, known as RT/RT and RT/WM, made up about 60% and 25% respectively of the study population.

Those in the RT/WM group were the least sensitive to androstenone -- 46% said they could not smell the compound at its highest concentration. Just 28% of those in the RT/RT group could not smell the compound.

Among those who could smell the compound, participants in the RT/WM group were more than twice as likely to describe androstenone's smell as "vanilla" compared with those in the RT/RT group. Members of the RT/RT group were more than twice as likely to describe the odor as "sickening."

Matsunami's group is analyzing 65 other odors and the genes that may be related to them.

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jia-rui.chong@latimes.com

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