Mmmm bacon... and genetics

08 June 2012

Interview with

Safia Danovi

Kat - And finally, moving on to the genetics of bacon. You're a big bacon sandwich fan?

Safia - Actually, I have to confess. I'm a Muslim, so I've never tried the stuff, but it does smell awfully good. 

Kat - Well that's interesting because this is a story led by Hiroaki Matsunami in the US and published in PLoS ONE about the genetics of why some people like the smell of pork or not. So previously, these guys had discovered that there's a receptor, a scent receptor, that means that if you have one version of it, you can smell a molecule called androstenone which is particularly produced by male pigs and makes meat smell very piggy basically. And if you don't have a functional copy of the gene, you can tolerate the scent much more because you can't smell it so much. So the researchers were approached by a Norwegian team, because in Europe there's currently discussion about whether castration for male pigs should be outlawed.  Currently male pigs are castrated so that it's easier to keep them and farm them, but uncastrated male pigs make a lot of androstenone. They're very smelly, piggy animals. So they wanted to find out what would happen if there was actually a genetic impact and they did a little study that was looking at 13 people. Ten were professional smellers and three were just, I guess, regular people and found that people who had the copy of the gene that meant they could smell this androstenone, they've got a really powerful piggy scent, and I do think it's quite interesting that maybe our tastes and our taste perception may be much more under genetic control than we think.

Safia - Yeah, I completely agree and as the mother of a very fussy eater, this is really not great news for me, but I think it's also a really interesting interface between economics and genetics. So obviously the study was commissioned by the Norwegians because it might have very significant commercial applications if castration of male pigs is banned. It might mean that less people like meat and therefore, less people will want to eat pork.

Kat - It's interesting they speculate as well that maybe vegetarians are very sensitive to the unpleasant side of the smell of meat, so they're vegetarians for that reason. I do know some people who are really turned off the smell of meat and don't eat it.

Safia - Yeah and not just vegetarians. It would be really interesting to see whether these genes are present in populations that have not eaten pork for centuries and centuries, so Jewish communities, Muslim communities, Buddhist communities. It would be really interesting to see how many copies, if any of these genes are present in these people.

Kat - Certainly food for thought. 

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