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On the Nose

Mice prefer to mate with partners that express different MHC (major hiscompatibility complex) genes from their own to achieve genetic diversity. Researchers in Germany have used an electronic nose and mass spectrometry to "sniff out" the urine markers that signal mouse matrimony.

Volatile components in urine that are MHC-dependent have been shown to influence mating behaviour in mice. A group at the University of Tubingen have used a gas sensor array coupled with mass spectrometry as an electronic nose to identify the odouress constitutents.

The electronic nose consists of a quartz microbalance of eight individual sensors each coated with a difference polymer coating. The mass-sensitive crystals change their frequency according to the size of the absorbed molecules. A second set of gas sensors consist of metal oxide surfaces that alter their conductivity based on interactions with volatile constituents in the urine. The vapour above the surfaces is further analysed by gas-chromatography/mass spectrometry to identify and quantitate the volatile components present.

The approach enables the odor types of different mouse strains to be identified. The researchers report that same sex mice can be characterized according to their odour profiles and that the dominant components of the odour are MHC-dependent.

What the study is unable to answer is whether mice use the same urine components to differentiate their sexual partners. Interestingly, humans also appear to use body odour signals to attract partners. One reported study found that female students prefer the odour of males who possess different genetic traits. The attraction mates, however, in humans is more complex as many sociocultural influences and the use of perfumed cosmetics can influence and conceal natural odours.

The full report is featured in the July 31 issue of
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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