Researchers have discovered the first evidence that our experience of smell is not general, but highly personal and that genes govern whether an odour smells nice, or nasty.
Writing in Nature, Leslie Vosshall and her colleagues at Rockefeller and Duke Universities asked human volunteers to smell androstenone, which is a hormone derived from testosterone and produced in large amounts by males. Intriguingly the volunteers experiences of the chemical were wildly different. Some described it as "sweet or floral", others found it odourless and thought they were being tricked or asked to smell water, whilst a large number were repulsed, describing the smell as "sweaty or urinous"; as Vosshall herself says "to me it smelled like the armpit of a man who had run a hundred miles without taking a shower". Then team then genetically screened the volunteers and found a different version of a smell receptor gene called OR7D4 in those who experienced the smell differently.
Until now smell perception had been believed to be very much a culturally-driven phenomenon, but this new discovery shows that in fact genes control how we experience certain smells. So do people who tend to eschew deodourants also tend to carry the altered form of this gene?
"That's something we really want to find out," says Vosshall, "in particular we want to know how these different forms of the gene affect human population dynamics". Which is a polite way of saying do stinky people marry people with a dodgy sense of smell!