Fear Of Stink: A Century In The Making
Jan22

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. 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? For one, the UK is dominated by people who have stinky armpits. If you are stink-free, it’s because you have two copies of the recessive, odorless allele of the gene, which behaves in a rather Mendelian fashion, says Ian Day, the University of Bristol researcher who led the study. Being stink-free is rare in the UK, so both parents of an odorless child are probably heterozygous. That means they carry one stinky allele of the gene and one stink-free allele, but they are stinky themselves. Statistically, only one quarter of these parents’ kids will be stink-free. So you can imagine that stinky parents are likely to give their awkward teenagers deodorants in anticipation of that day when their bodies start announcing adulthood. And they probably do it prematurely, so that their teenagers don’t suffer ridicule from other, more well-prepared schoolmates....

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Elvis And Autism: An Unlikely Couple
Mar07

Elvis And Autism: An Unlikely Couple

Grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches, sequined jumpsuits, a rockin’ set of sideburns. These are the things that people most often associate with Elvis Presley. Autism, on the other hand, doesn’t usually come to mind. While working on an article about autism that was published this week in C&EN, however, I made the wacky connection. During that period, I watched a 1969 Elvis movie called “Change of Habit” and was surprised that the spectrum disorder was featured prominently. In the film (trailer above), the King plays an overworked doctor practicing medicine at a clinic in a city ghetto. Alongside Mary Tyler Moore, who portrays a nun with a medical background sent to help lighten his caseload, Elvis wrestles with how to treat one particularly challenging patient: a young girl named Amanda who doesn’t talk, who shrinks from human touch, and who has episodes of rocking back and forth. Elvis eventually diagnoses Amanda with autism and quickly administers some tough love via “rage reduction” treatment. Doctor and nun sit side by side, holding the girl while she kicks and screeches, all the while telling her to let out her anger and reiterating how much they love her. Immediately after this intense session, Amanda begins to speak, respond to social cues, and hug people. Seemingly, Elvis has set the girl on a fast track to recovery. If only it were that easy. My knee-jerk reaction to this scene, as a person with an autistic family member, was one of irritation. And my reaction as a person who had just spent months researching the genetic causes of the neurodevelopmental spectrum disorder was one of disbelief. But then I quickly remembered that this movie was released in 1969, a time when most people thought autism was caused by bad parenting. The “refrigerator mother” theory touted by a lot of psychologists back then stated that women who didn’t show their children enough affection were causing the disorder. The frigid mothers made their kids feel unloved, and therefore the children shied away from human interaction. The studies on twins that established autism as having a genetic basis and overthrew this notion weren’t published until the late 1970s. So say what you will about Elvis’s acting career (don’t say it to me, though, because I’m actually quite a fan), but this portrayal of autism wasn’t his fault. He was acting out the prevailing theory at the time. What I did take from “Change of Habit,” however, is how far autism research has come since 1969. Today, as I say in my article, researchers have identified hundreds of genes that are potentially involved with the spectrum disorder. Some...

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