Love at First Sniff: Chemistry Women Are Attracted to Odors Most Unlike Own

By Sarah Richardson Discover magazine | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), March 4, 1996 | Go to article overview

Love at First Sniff: Chemistry Women Are Attracted to Odors Most Unlike Own


Sarah Richardson Discover magazine, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


A WOMAN enters a room alone and seats herself before a table covered with seven small boxes.

She picks up each box, sniffs it carefully and jots something on a pad of paper.

Shortly after she leaves, another woman enters and re-enacts the performance.

This is not market research at a perfume company. It's the lab of Claus Wedekind, a zoologist at Bern University in Switzerland.

Wedekind is testing women's responses to sweaty T-shirts - men's sweaty T-shirts.

He has found that women have strong preferences in that department. They're attracted to the scent of men who are most unlike them in a very particular way - in the array of immune-system genes known as MHC, for major histocompatibility complex.

MHC genes are the most diverse of all genes. In fact, they differ so widely from person to person that they constitute a molecular John Hancock, one that helps an organism recognize its own healthy cells, identify pathogens and reject foreign tissue.

The idea that they may also confer a distinctive odor, and thereby influence behavior, was first suggested in 1974 by biologist Lewis Thomas.

Laboratory studies soon proved Thomas right in the case of mice.

Inbred mice - who are alike in all genes but MHC - could detect a difference in the scent of a relative that harbored an ever-so-slightly different MHC gene.

Moreover, their odor preferences were not innate but learned. Young mice tend to prefer the odor of their nest mates, but when they hit puberty, it's vive la difference. They prefer to mate with mice whose MHC genes are unlike their own.

Since the mouse studies were done, researchers have found that humans, too, can detect MHC-dependent odors.

But no one had shown that we prefer some such odors to others.

Wedekind and his colleagues didn't really set out to do that. They're zoologists, and their professional interest is not in how humans choose mates but in how fish do.

Their work had led them to the hypothesis that MHC genes are somehow involved in producing signals that influence mate choice - but since humans can talk, and our MHC genes are better known than those of fish, for once we were the better laboratory animals.

"We know a lot about the immune system in humans, and we can do experiments in which we ask women or men what their preferences are," Wedekind says. "We used humans just as a model species to get an idea about a very basic question in evolutionary biology."

For his study, Wedekind recruited a group of 49 women and 44 men who harbored a wide range of MHC genes.

Wedekind gave each man a clean T-shirt on a Sunday morning and asked him to wear it for two nights. He decided to gather male scent rather than female scent simply because unshaved armpits collect more odor.

In fact, to ensure a strong body odor, he gave the men supplies of odor-free soap and aftershave and asked them to remain as "odor neutral" as possible.

On Tuesday morning, the men returned, sweaty T-shirts in hand.

Wedekind put each shirt in a plastic-lined cardboard box with a sniffing hole on top. Then he brought in the women.

Each woman was scheduled for the experiment at the midpoint of her menstrual cycle, when women's noses are reputedly the keenest, and each was presented with a different set of seven boxes. …

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