Your 'Odortype' Is Unique!

It has been known for centuries or even longer that dogs are able to identify individual people and track them over long distances. Recent evidence also indicates that mothers can recognize the odor of their baby and, perhaps, babies can identify the scent of their mother.

How is this done? There must be an olfactory signature much like a fingerprint.

We have called this an odorprint or an odortype. Our research over the past years has been designed to discover the nature of this odortype-what genes are involved, what roles it plays in normal animal and human behavior, and ultimately what chemicals are involved in the olfactory code.

The story of our research program began in 1974, when my mentor, collaborator and a former chairman of Monell, the late Dr Lewis Thomas, building on theories on histocompatibility genes and olfaction, suggested that histocompatibility complex genes, might impart to each individual a characteristic scent.

Dogs, he surmised, might be able to distinguish different human histocompatibility types by the sense of smell. During the past three decades, we have investigated this hypothesis; our studies and more recently, a number of other laboratories have succeeded in verifying the fundamental basis for this prediction.We have shown that mice that differ in as little as a single DNA base pair mutation in one of these genes exhibit different odors. Indeed, theoretically every mouse and every person (except identical twins) have a unique odor determined by these genes. Our studies have encompassed the behavior, physiology and chemistry of this phenomenon.

Genes in the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) have been identified by immunologists as critical for immune response. Animals and humans that are similar at this set of about 50 genes can mutually accept transplants for example.

The MHC of human is called HLA and of mice is called H-2. A unique feature of this set of genes is their extreme variability. Since the MHC is the only group of genes exhibiting this extreme variation, it was hypothesized- correctly as it turned out- that they would be involved in controlling odor types.

An odortype (we defined as) is the genetically-determined body odor that distinguishes one individual of a species from another. The MHC-determined odortype is that portion of the animal's total odortype that is under the control of genes in the Major Histocompatibility Complex.

Science fiction authors have been on the trail of "odortypes" for a long time. Listen to Golden age master Ray Cummings in his 1935 short story Crimes of the Year 2000:

2XZ4 —the man wanted for a score of crimes, from murder up to treasonable plotting. 2XZ4 had never been arrested, never been typed. But we had his olfactory classification; the Bloodhound Machine, as the newscasters luridly call it, had contacted his trail several times, so that the scent of him was mathematically known.
(Read more about the Bloodhound Machine)

Fans of the great Ray Bradbury may also recall the olfactory system of the Mechanical Hound from Fahrenheit 451 (1953).

Via Monell Center.

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