Monday, April 12, 2010
It’s not often that men take the prize from women in the arena of olfactory psychophysics. In fact, it’s more like never. Women are usually better at identifying odors and they have outperformed men in every published study of smell sensitivity—until now.
Peter Olsson and Matthias Laska at Linkőping University in Sweden have finally found a molecule that men detect at reliably lower concentrations than women. It’s an aromatic aldehyde called bourgeonal and as we shall see it’s an interesting molecule for other reasons.
Olsson and Laska conducted their battle of the sexes with 250 players on each squad. The test: sniff three squeeze bottles and pick the one that contains an odor. (The other two contain just the odorless solvent.) Easier said than done when the airborne concentration of bourgeonal is less than 20 parts per billion.
The experimenters used standard procedures for finding detection thresholds. Each test began with the lowest concentration and worked upwards until the sniffer could reliably pick the smelly bottle. Similar tests with two other odors—helional and n-pentyl acetate—served as controls. There was no sex difference in the lowest detectable concentration of either control odor.
So what’s special about bourgeonal? It activates the human olfactory receptor known as OR1D2 which, besides being found in the human nose, is also expressed in human sperm cells.
Yes, sperm cells.
Bourgeonal is a potent molecular signal that is critical to sperm chemotaxis, In other words, it’s what sperm use to find their way to the egg. So it makes more than a little evolutionary sense that bourgeonal detection is ramped up in men and their gametic representatives.
FirstNerve congratulates Olsson and Laska for shattering the glass ceiling that has held down male olfactory self-esteem for centuries. We look forward to newly empowered male undergraduates spraying themselves with low-concentration bourgeonal and marching through the Womyn’s Studies department in a defiant act of nasal solidarity.
UPDATE June 6, 2010
Добре дошли на читателите на Капитал!