Looking for the one? Ask your nose!

Shiva Amiri
23 January 2012

With Valentine's Day just past, have you decided who that special person is yet? Is it the one that you can’t take your eyes off of, the one that aces all the tests, or the one that shares your dreams?

If you can’t follow your heart on this one, ask your nose!

Did You Know?
DNA codes for proteins using specific gene sequences. Proteins made up of one or more chains of amino acids, and carry out all sorts of functions in our bodies.

Through research in a field called evolutionary psychology, scientists have found that your nose is very much helping you decide who your partner should be. This phenomenon is linked to our immune system and a part of our body’s DNA known as the major histocompatibilty complex (MHC).

The MHC creates proteins that mark or flag the surface of cells as either “self” or “non-self”. This tagging helps our immune system identify whether the cells belong to us or whether they are foreign (e.g. viruses and bacteria). If foreign cells are identified, a special type of white blood cell rushes in to kill them off.

So how does this relate to attraction?

Our immune system creates proteins that have a unique scent depending on the type of genes present in the MHC. These proteins are excreted through the skin.

Did You Know?
MHC genes are "co-dominant." This means if you inherit a MHC gene from your mom that is resistant to one disease and a different MHC gene from your dad that is resistant to another disease, you’ll be resistant to both

Studies suggest that we are attracted to the smell of partners with a MHC different than our own. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense since the genes of the MHC produce proteins that help our immune system. Parents, in looking out for their offspring, want to mate with a partner whose MHC has a different genetic makeup so that their children will have a more diverse immune system, leading to a greater resistance to diseases.

Claus Wedekind, a Swiss biologist, conducted an experiment in 1995 that proved humans are indeed attracted to those with different MHC. A group of female college students smelled T-shirts that had been worn by male students for two nights, without deodorant, cologne, or scented soaps. A large majority of women preferred the odours of men with MHCs different than their own. Interestingly, their preference was reversed if they were taking oral contraceptives, suggesting that oral contraceptives affect and interfere with our natural mate selection mechanisms.

Did You Know?
Some smells can affect how we feel – for example, lavender is often associated with improved mood.

So, if you’re looking for the perfect boyfriend/girlfriend this Valentine’s Day, don’t ignore your nose. It might just know best!

Learn more!

What is MHC?

How scent plays a role in attraction

The sweaty T-shirt experiment

Article first published February 7, 2011.

Photo credit: free-extras.com

Shiva Amiri

I am currently the Science and Innovation Officer at the British Consulate General in Toronto (life and medical research sectors). My role is part of a greater Science and Innovation Network (SIN) under the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office – working to facilitate scientific collaboration and encourage innovation between the UK and Canadian universities and research laboratories.I completed my D.Phil. (Ph.D.) in computational biochemistry at the University of Oxford. Prior to my studies at Oxford, I received an Honours B.Sc from the University of Toronto, with a double major in computer science and human biology. During this time, I conducted research with the Best Institute of Medical Research’s Bioinformatics and Proteomics program, working on software to predict mass spectroscopic data for entire proteomes. I volunteer with Let's Talk Science and enjoy writing and scientific communication.  I am a contributor to the Mark News www.themarknews.com.  Apart from science, my interests include history, film, and fine arts. I also like to play sports, travel, and involve myself in humanitarian causes in the developing world.

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