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Monday, 16 July, 2001, 21:14 GMT 22:14 UK
Gene job for e-nose
Nose, BBC
Smell is an important factor when selecting a mate
By BBC News Online's Ivan Noble

There may be no accounting for taste, but there is now a way of accounting for smell.

It can tell the difference between smell A and smell B, but it can't identify smell A on its own

Hans-Georg Rammensee
University of Tübingen
A team of researchers from the University of Tübingen in Germany has used an "electronic nose" to detect subtle differences in mice odours.

The results link mouse smells to genetic differences and back up the theory that mice avoid inbreeding by smelling the difference between family and outsider.

The researchers believe that their technique could be used to study human behaviour, too.

Nose for a difference

"Our data now allow for a biochemical approach to study the influence of genetically determined odour types on social behaviour, including that of humans," they write.

Their "e-nose" was originally developed by another university department and turned into a commercial product with applications in the food industry.

It can "smell" the difference between different kinds of olive oils, coffee or beer and even different car interiors, they explain. But despite such sensitivity, it is unable to identify smells by themselves.

Same sex

"It can tell the difference between smell A and smell B but it can't identify smell A on its own," Hans-Georg Rammensee, co-author of the study, told BBC News Online.

"And if you present it with smell A once and then again, it can't tell that it is the same smell," he explained.

The e-nose uses an array of 16 sensors to sample smells and pass the results to a computer program for analysis.

The e-nose was able to smell the difference not only between mice of different sexes, but between mice of the same sex but with certain genetic differences.

Immunity link

These differences - variations in what are known as MHC genes - are linked to the way that the immune system works.

Mice choosing partners with MHC genes different to their own seem to produce offspring better able to fight off disease. And the experiment with the e-nose backs up behavioural studies, which suggest that mice use smell to pick out a good mate.

The team has some interesting suggestions for using the e-nose on humans.

They suggest that modern perfumes and antiperspirants may be stopping people from picking the perfect mate.

"It might well be that primary influences on mate choice, for example, cannot be found any more because other sociocultural influences, extended use of perfumed cosmetic products, and inhibitors of sweating overlay the inherent individual odour type," they write.

The research appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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