60-Second Science

Smell Delight or Disgust Lies in Genes

A floral odor was described by people with one version of a gene as aromatic, but by those with a different variation as sour. Chris Crockett reports

There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who can smell the roses and those who can’t. Our ability to smell certain odors appears to be hardwired genetically.

Researchers conducted blind smell tests. They then compared the results with participants’ DNA. Detection of four odors—emanating from apples, blue cheese, malt and flowers—could be linked to DNA variations. The studies are in the journal Current Biology. [Sara R. Jaeger et al., A Mendelian trait for olfactory sensitivity affects odor experience and food selection and Jeremy F. McRae et al, Identification of regions associated with variation in sensitivity to food-related odors in the human genome]

A rose-related odor, due to the compound beta-ionone, was described by people with one version of a specific gene as “floral” and “aromatic”. But those with a different variation of the gene said things like “vinegar” and “sour.”

It seems our genes change how we experience the world. That’s important to know if you’re designing soap and want to add a dash of beta-ionone for a fresh floral scent—some consumers may find it disgusting.

Remember that the next time someone finds your homemade apple pie revolting. The fault may lie not in your cooking but in their nose.

—Chris Crockett

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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