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Posts Tagged → smell

In Print: Europe’s Got A Stink Problem

High-priced smell: Brit Ken Wilman has been offered $65,000 for the ambergris he and his dog, Madge, found. Credit: Manchester Evening News Syndication

Brit Ken Wilman has been offered $65,000 for the ambergris he and his dog, Madge, found. Credit: Manchester Evening News Syndication

The Newscripts blog would like to be closer Internet buddies with our glossy print Newscripts column, so here we highlight what’s going on in the current issue of C&EN. 

This week’s print Newscripts comes from Alex Scott, C&EN senior editor for Europe, who writes about the smells in his neck of the woods in “The French Stench, The English Pong, The Cheesy Norwegians.” He covers the sources of a sulfurous rotten-egg smell in coastal France, an unpleasant “pong” on a British beach, and noxious goat-cheese fumes in a Norwegian tunnel.

“Chemistry is happening all around us,”  Scott says. “The stories this week show just how this can happen and how even the smell of benign chemicals in the environment can stop us in our tracks. You can even make money from some smells such as was the case with the discovery of ambergris.” (A Brit found some ambergris, the intestinal slurry of a sperm whale valued for perfume-making, on a beach).

As for what he couldn’t fit into print, Scott says he wished he could’ve gone into more detail about just how rotten-egg-smelling mercaptan was accidently released from a Lubrizol plant in France. But hey, he’d love to tell the blogosphere more: “Rather than being produced as a final product, the mercaptan was generated incidentally during the production of an additive for a lubricant. The additive wasn’t cooled quickly enough in a reactor, and this led to a release of mercaptan. Normally this is avoided. Lubrizol’s problem was then that its air-scrubbing equipment was unable to reduce the mercaptan to the extremely low levels at which humans can detect it, hence the release.”

Stay sniffin’, Alex.


Fear Of Stink: A Century In The Making

Lurking among us are foolish folks who fork out cash for deodorants even though their armpits don’t smell.

This is the take-home message of an article in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology that’s been making the rounds of science news sites and blogs. It’s a fun study, but the results aren’t really that surprising.

Researchers have known for years that some people in Europe (2% of the population) and most people in China, Japan, and Korea are fortunate enough to have two copies of a recessive gene that makes their armpits relative* stink-free zones.

An anti-sweat advertisement from 1939.

An anti-sweat advertisement from 1939.

That’s because the gene codes for a protein involved in transporting molecules out of special sweat glands that appear in your armpits at puberty. These stink-producing glands are called apocrine glands, and they differ from eccrine glands, which are found all over your body and produce the salty fluid we commonly associate with sweat and body temperature regulation.

Apocrine glands typically excrete all manner of waxy molecules that armpit bacteria love to feast on. It’s the leftover, metabolized molecules, such as trans-3-methyl-2-hexanoic acid, which give many human bodies that oh-so-ripe odor.

Because the difference between stinky and stink-free folks is a gene involved in transporting armpit molecules, it’s pretty likely that people without body odor have a dysfunctional transporter. Although that’s not yet been proven, it’s a reasonable theory.

For example, people with odorless armpits also produce a dry white earwax, instead of a yellowish wet version. Presumably, the transport machinery that isn’t exporting bacteria food in the armpit isn’t exporting a yellowish fluid in the ears either.

What’s really new in the article is simply the observation that among the 2% of folks in the UK who probably don’t need to apply deodorant, 78% still do.

OK, so why is this not really surprising? Continue reading →

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Bethany Halford and Lauren Wolf.

Look delicious? You never know where it might have come from. Credit: Flickr user cathou_cathare

Where some see a stinky armpit, this Ph.D. student saw a novel method for making cheese. [Improbable Research]

Latex condoms? So five minutes ago. The new hotness is electrospun nanofiber condoms. [PopSci]

Bad news for those of us who have lost our sense of smell from breathing the air in the organic lab: Scientists say a strong sense of smell is key to a happy relationship. [Daily Mail]

New study, completed in Turkey, shows that treating gum disease also improves erectile dysfunction. Newscripts wonders whether the researchers did a control for bad breath simply keepin’ the ladies away. [Vitals/NBCNews]

A nice explainer on the perils of moonshine and drinking oneself blind. [Slate]

Experiment from 1995 finds that cowboy boots impart less balance to subjects than tennis shoes. Give those researchers some more funds! [Discoblog]

Smelling The Moon

Press me! Press me!- the button's siren song. Drahl/C&EN

Many a space-obsessed kid has dreamed of rocketing off to the moon, seeing Earth from the moon, perhaps even touching the lunar surface. But smelling the moon? That’s less likely to be on the to-do list. Still, the folks who designed the American Museum of Natural History’s “Beyond Planet Earth” exhibit are betting that moon fans will at least be curious.

The exhibit hall is dimly lit, perhaps for dramatic effect. A walk through it leads to a simple slab display labeled “Smell the Moon,” placed amid a Soviet space helmet and a Sputnik replica. A button on the display glows temptingly as a recording of John F. Kennedy’s historic moon speech crackles in the background. “Push and sniff to smell the Moon,” the button beckons. They should’ve made it red.

After giving in to temptation and pressing the button, I was rewarded with a puff of “moon air.” Apollo astronauts who tracked moondust inside their cabins have said the stuff smells like gunpowder. Never having handled a firearm, I can’t confirm this. But as Gizmodo’s reporter noted, the experience left a distinctly metallic taste in my mouth.

According to this NASA article on moon aroma, gunpowder and moondust are chemically quite distinct. Today’s gunpowder is made from small organic molecules– nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin. But the moon’s surface is made of compounds all sharing the common thread of silicon, including silicon dioxide and silicate minerals like olivine and pyroxene. As for why the common scent, that’s still something for researchers to figure out.