Immune system wins by a nose

March 9, 2001

If men cannot help acting on Impulse then it may be all down to their genes. Tests on 137 male and female students at Bern University in Switzerland have revealed that the fragrances people select for their own use depend on their genetic make-up.

This might explain why scents used for thousands of years are found in popular modern perfumes.

Unsurprisingly, given the raunchy nature of fragrance marketing, it is pure sexual communication. More precisely, Manfred Milinski, now professor of zoology at the Max Planck Institute for Limnology in Ploen, Germany, and Claus Wedekind, a postdoctoral researcher at Edinburgh University, believe it is a matter of advertising the genes that determine an individual's immune system in a bid to attract potential mates.

"Personal choice of perfume seems to reflect the immunogenetics of a person," said Professor Milinski.

Humans possess a dozen genes that combine to help produce the array of antibodies that combat disease.

These "immunogenes" can vary considerably between individuals, and offspring are more likely to be healthy if they inherit two very different sets from their parents. This gives them a broader armoury of immunogenes to fight infection.

Professor Milinski and Dr Wedekind's work supports the hypothesis that people emit chemical signals to communicate their immunogenetic make-up to others and naturally find the smell of a person with a very different set of genes more attractive than those with similar genetics.

The research, published in the journal Behavioral Ecology , suggests perfumes are chosen to somehow amplify these natural body odours.

Each student's immunogenetic make-up was determined in blood tests. They were then asked to make selections from 36 scents for their own use.

A significant connection between the two most common sets of immunogenes and preferences emerged. When they were asked to choose scents for a potential partner, as expected no correlations were found.

Hints of the scents that separate those with the most common immunogenes have been identified. Those who have the gene HLA-A2 tend to prefer musk and ambergris but to dislike bergemot. Those with HLA-A1 appear to have the opposite taste.

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