Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Nasal attraction

Olsson and Laska find an exception to the generalization that women sense chemicals better than men. Men are better at detecting the lily-of-the-valley flower smell of the compound bourgeonal. This same compound is a powerful chemical attractant for male sperm cells. Because the olfactory receptors on sperm cells are also expressed in the human nose, and selective pressure for keener receptors would act on men but not on women, it makes sense that men are more sensitive to the sperm attractant.
Recent studies have shown that sperm chemotaxis critically involves the human olfactory receptor OR1D2, which is activated by the aromatic aldehyde bourgeonal. Given that both natural and sexual selection may act upon the expression of receptors, we hypothesized that human males are more sensitive than human females for bourgeonal. Using a 3-alternative forced-choice test procedure, olfactory detection thresholds were determined for a total of 500 subjects, 250 males, and 250 females between 18 and 40 years of age. We found that male subjects detected bourgeonal at significantly lower concentrations (mean value: 13 ppb) compared with female subjects (mean value: 26 ppb), whereas no such gender difference in olfactory sensitivity was found with helional, a structural analog of bourgeonal, and with n-pentyl acetate, an aliphatic ester, which were tested in parallel. Males and females did not differ in their frequency of specific anosmia for any of the 3 odorants. The frequency distributions of olfactory detection thresholds were monomodal with all 3 odorants in both genders. Olfactory detection thresholds did not differ significantly between pre- and postovulatory females with any of the 3 odorants. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study ever to find a human male superiority in olfactory sensitivity. Single nucleotide polymorphisms and/or copy number variations in genes coding for olfactory receptors may be the proximate cause for our finding, whereas a gender difference in the behavioral relevance of bourgeonal may be the ultimate cause.

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