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Thursday, 31 January, 2002, 19:01 GMT
Smell secrets of sexy mice
Vomeronasal system
Part of the vomeronasal system pictured in humans
Mice need to use a "secret" smell system to help them choose a sexual partner, according to researchers.

Although many scientists believe that the same system - involving the vomeronasal organ (VNO) - is non-functional in humans - others think that it may well play a role in behaviour.

The research, published in the journal Science, found a gene in mice which is vital to keep the vomeronasal system going.

When the scientists, from Harvard University in the US, bred mice missing the vital gene, their behaviour greatly changed.

The altered male mice were less likely to become aggressive when another male was placed in their cage.

In fact, they were just as likely to initiate courtship or try to mate with either males or females.

The scientists suggested that the VNO, which although it can be found in the nose, is quite distinct from other olfactory parts, and leads to a different part of the brain, must help animals such as mice spot the difference between males and females.

Controversial theories

While the role of the VNO is easier to determine in animals, in humans it is far more complex.

The vast majority of humans do have one - it can be found on the nasal septum and is only 0.5mm across.

However, scientists have so far failed to find any conclusive evidence that it is functional in adult humans.

It appears to work in foetuses, and perhaps even in newborns, but then regresses as the baby grows.

If it's true that there is a functional VNO it does open up an amazing new area of human communication

Dr Tim Jacob, University of Cardiff
Many experts suspect that while humans do use smell to "communicate", the activity happens in the main olfactory tissue rather than the VNO.

Either way, the possibility of genetically manipulating sexual desire using the VNO in humans seems unlikely on current evidence, say the research authors.

British smell scientist Professor Tim Jacob, from Cardiff University, said that while experts were split on the significance of the VNO, if it did prove to have a role, then the results could be fascinating.

He said: "No-one has been able to show that it is connected to the brain.

"But if it's true that there is a functional VNO it does open up an amazing new area of human communication."

See also:

16 Dec 98 | Health
The magic of sexual attraction
16 Dec 98 | Health
Putting pheromones on the map
21 Jan 02 | Health
Women sniff out ideal mates
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