Scientists have developed a new test which is able to distinguish between different individuals based on their perception of odours. The test, which was part of a research project by neuroscientist Noam Sobel of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, suggests that the way in which we ‘smell’ is possibly due to our genetic makeup.
While most of us perceive a specific odour in a similar manner, the genes that enable us to detect scents can be approximately 30% different between any two individuals, meaning that nearly everyone’s sense of smell is subtly different from the next person.
So far, there has never been a test available that was able to detect this sensory uniqueness, until the one developed by Sobel and his colleagues. Together they designed a sensitive scent test which they described as an ‘olfactory fingerprint’ based on how a person perceives a certain smell in comparison to others. During their experiments, they asked 89 test subjects to rate how a number of odours, such as compost or cloves matched up to a set of adjectives. There were 28 odours in total, with a set of 54 adjectives, such as ‘spicy’, ‘nutty’ or ‘pleasant’.
The results showed that all of the subjects who took part in the study had completely different olfactory fingerprints. In fact, they were so distinct that with just 7 odours and 11 descriptors, the team could have identified any of the individuals who participated in the test. The researchers also found that those people with similar olfactory fingerprints also had similar genes for the proteins developed by the immune system which are usually linked to body odour. This led neuroscientist, Lavi Secundo, author of the study, to suggest that people who have similar olfactory fingerprints are likely to smell the same to others. This is an important element when it comes to choosing a mate, as it’s already been shown that we can use our sense of smell to detect our genetic similarity to others to avoid inbreeding.
Sobel and his team are hoping that the ability to identify an individual’s olfactory fingerprint could be used in the future as a diagnostic tool for diseases that have an effect of the sense of smell, such as Parkinson’s. It’s also thought that an individual’s olfactory fingerprint could be used as a form of identity, as it would be virtually impossible to copy or to steal.