Published online 7 March 2001 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news010308-10

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The sweet smell of the immune system

Your taste in scent might say something about your genes.

Enduring scents probably chime with our basic biologyEnduring scents probably chime with our basic biology

If the perfume industry hopes to concoct a universal knock-'em-dead scent, it should think again. New research suggests that a person's taste in perfume is as individual as the genetics of her or his immune system.

Manfred Milinski and Claus Wedekind, of Bern University, Switzerland, have found that the way a person would like to smell reflects the make-up of their 'major histocompatability complex' (MHC) -- a part of the genome involved in sexual attraction and in the body's defence against disease1.

Instead of being an attempt to mask body odour, preferred perfumes might amplify certain aspects of it, alerting compatible mates and giving a general impression of health.

Milinski and Wedekind measured men and women's responses to 36 different scents, including old favourites such as myrrh, jasmine and vanilla. The 137 respondents, whose MHC genes fell into nine different groups, were asked how much they would like to use a perfume or aftershave that contained each ingredient, and also whether they would find the scent attractive on a potential mate.

There was a significant correlation between a person's MHC group and the things they would like to smell of. Different genotypes, for example, had very different ideas about the merits of musk.

George Dodd, perfumer and director of research and development at the odour biotechnology company Kiotech, points out that the complexity of both natural scents and the sense of smell makes studies such as this very difficult to interpret and reproduce. But he describes the work as "a brave attempt at a difficult subject".

There were no trends in the smells preferred for potential partners. Previous research using sweaty T-shirts has shown that people are attracted to members of the opposite sex whose MHC genes differ from their own2. Any offspring from such a union would have a broader immune response, and a better chance of fighting off pathogens.

This study suggests that any of the multitude of smells that says 'different to self' should be acceptable on another person, and just because you like a smell, it is unlikely to be a taste shared by that special someone. "You should not give perfumes to other people," comments Milinski.

Men and women had different preferences. "This was something I did not expect -- it was kind of disturbing," Milinski says, as there are no sex differences in MHC genes. The differing tastes may be a legacy of recent cultural trends; single-sex perfumes have only arisen in the past 50 years or so.

In fact, beneath the blizzard of fancy marketing and packaging, fashions in perfume are rather static. Chanel No. 5 has been around since 1921, eau de Cologne was invented in the eighteenth century, and most of the basic ingredients of contemporary perfumes were used by the ancient Egyptians. Milinski and Wedekind's work suggests that enduring scents probably chime with our basic biology.

Until the early part of this century, bespoke perfumers, devising exclusive and secret blends for their customers, were widespread. Perhaps in the future biotech perfumers will use genetic analyses to enhance their clients' aromas.

Dodd has designed personal scents for many years. "We're only at the beginning of the science of perfumery," he says, "but the complexity is very romantic -- when people choose a perfume they're expressing their individuality." 

  • References

    1. Milinski,M. & Wedekind, C. Evidence for MHC-correlated perfume preferences in humans. Behavioural Ecology 12,140 - 1492001. | Article |
    2. Wedekind,C., Seebeck, T., Bettens, F. & Paepke, A. J.MHC-dependent mate preferences in humans. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 260,245 - 2491995. | ISI | ChemPort |