60-Second Science

Male Sweat Can Smell Sweet or Sour To Different Sniffers

Your genetic makeup determines whether an individual man's sweat can smell to you like vanilla, urine or nothing. Karen Hopkin reports.

September 17, 2007 -- Male Sweat Can Smell Sweet or Sour To Different Sniffers

A smell is a smell is a smell. Cinnamon smells like cinnamon, skunk smells like skunk, and boys smell like…well, it depends on who you ask.  This week, scientists from Rockefeller University and Duke University announced that a chemical present in high concentrations in the sweat of men can smell like vanilla, or like urine, depending on the genetic makeup of the person doing the sniffing.

The discovery happened like this. Researchers at Rockefeller had asked 400 people to assess the intensity and “pleasantness” of 66 different odors, including androstenone, a chemical in male sweat. In the meantime, the Duke scientists had discovered that androstenone specifically activates a smell receptor called OR7D4. So the researchers teamed up.  The Rockefeller scientists sent blood samples from their sniffers to Duke, where researchers then looked at their receptors.

People with one form of the smell receptor find that androstenone smells foul and intense. While those with a different form detect a hint of vanilla.  And some can’t smell it at all. Which might be a blessing, considering the other options, which are confusing, if not downright offputting.

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