All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand

Have you ever noticed that some perfumes just don’t suit the person wearing them? The same goes for deodorants, I suppose, but you really have to stand pretty close to smell them. The problem, however, is whether you should say anything about it, or just not invite them for dinner.

But whatever, you really have to wonder what they were thinking. Most people shower each morning  to rid themselves of the night before, and then are rather particular about how they want to greet the day ahead -what clothes they wear, how they do their hair, and who they might want to impress. Body odour is key, so few will chance a breakfast of garlic toast if they are going to be sitting in a meeting all day. Same thing goes for baked beans, no doubt, although I suppose if they’re vegan, their choices are limited.

Anyway, odours are a funny things, and with prolonged exposure, most of us adapt so well we no longer notice. Others, however, pay discreet attention when we’re not looking. I remember as a child when the family used to visit my ageing grandmother in the Home, I used to complain about the urine smell in the halls. My parents never mentioned it, and so I used to wonder if it was just the smell of age: they didn’t notice it because, well, they were pretty old, too.

Another example was beets. All my friends’ parents grew beets in their Winnipeg gardens, and I loved the smell when they were freshly picked. It was sort of a combination of loving the odour and the dirt still clinging to them -which, by the way, also endeared me to carrots freshly pulled from the ground when nobody was around- and the deep red juice when they were cooked. Only years later did I discover that my father couldn’t stand the smell of beets, so my mother just cooked them when he was away. I used to think it was because  I was special -I guess I was, sort of.

Over the years though, as is the wont of Time, I swept such idiosyncrasies to one side and got on with life. Retirement, however, brought some of them rising to the surface like the bubbles in a too quickly microwaved stew. After all, apart from playing cards till they turn out the lights, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do in the slowly emptying room?

At any rate, I had very few new observations on the subject until I bumped into a compelling article in the Smithsonian magazine: ‘If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then scent, as revealed by a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is in not only a smeller’s nose, but their DNA,’ writes Meilan Solly, the assistant digital editor of the humanities section of the Smithsonian.

I mean, who knew? I was well aware of the after-odour-thing with asparagus -although I knew enough not to mention it at dinner parties, or anything- but I hadn’t really considered extrapolating that to anything else. For example, ‘scientists found that variations in perceptions of beet’s earthiness, the lily of the valley’s sweetness, whiskey’s smokiness and dozens of other scents can all be traced back to a single genetic mutation… According to UPI’s Brooks Hays, human noses contain around 400 olfactory receptors, or specialized sensory proteins mainly linked with smell but believed to be capable of performing other less-understood functions. A single odor molecule can activate multiple olfactory receptors; at the same time, various kinds of molecules can activate a single receptor.’ By comparing participants’ ratings to their DNA, Trimmer [Casey Trimmer, a geneticist working with a fragrance and flavour company] and her colleagues studied over 300 volunteers and ‘were able to identify individuals with functioning versus malfunctioning receptors and gauge how these mutations affected scent perception. Surprisingly, the team found that a variation in just one receptor was strong enough to influence sensitivity to odors.’

‘“We still know very little about how olfactory receptors translate information from an odor molecule into the perception of an odor’s quality, intensity, and pleasantness,” senior author Joel Mainland, an olfactory neurobiologist, says in a press release. “By examining how variation in an olfactory receptor gene changes odor perception, we can begin to understand the function of each receptor. This in turn will help us learn how the receptors work together so that we can decipher the olfactory code.”’

The thinking had been that the loss of a single receptor wouldn’t make any difference to our odour perception. But think again, eh? ‘Androstenone, a compound found in men’s sweat, offers a key example of the new study’s premise: Alternately perceived as “very disgusting and intense,” in the words of Rockefeller University neuroscientist Leslie B. Vosshall, neutral and vaguely vanilla-esque, or like nothing at all, androstenone was expected to be an outlier, tracing its odor differences to a single receptor.’ But no, you play with whatever receptor you’re dealt, eh? Apparently, this type of thing is not at all uncommon -you’re either lucky, or nobody sits with you at lunch.

Thank goodness I no longer have to carry my gym bag in the car so I could play roller-blade hockey after work. Not that I got many complaints, but I didn’t carry many passengers either. I suppose it all works out, though -it’s just a matter of only offering rides to those with the right genes, and they usually sort themselves out after a few trips.

Of course, the gene people mentioned in the article were not exactly dealing with an open hand -I mean they’re not disclosing the sir names of any the genes involved, although I tried not too poke around too much. Everything’s probably classified anyway, and I don’t want my Email hacked, nor do I want them to think I have a Crispr Cas9 machine hidden in my garage, or anything.

And besides, I’m happy with the way I smell… Well, anyway, nobody’s complained. Of course, I don’t get invited out much anymore, but I’m sure it’s nothing to do with my deodorant.


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