Body odour preferences in men and women: do they aim for specific MHC combinations or simply heterozygosity?

Proc Biol Sci. 1997 Oct 22;264(1387):1471-9. doi: 10.1098/rspb.1997.0204.


The major histocompatibility complex (MHC) is an immunologically important group of genes that appears to be under natural as well as sexual selection. Several hypotheses suggest that certain MHC-allele combinations (usually heterozygous ones) are superior under selective pressure by pathogens. This could influence mate choice in a way that preferences function to create MHC-heterozygous offspring, or that they function to create specific allele combinations that are beneficial under the current environmental conditions through their complementary or epistatic effects. To test these hypotheses, we asked 121 men and women to score the odours of six T-shirts, worn by two women and four men. Their scorings of pleasantness correlated negatively with the degree of MHC similarity between smeller and T-shirt-wearer in men and women who were not using the contraceptive pill (but not in Pill-users). Depending on the T-shirt-wearer, the amount of variance in the scorings of odour pleasantness that was explained by the degree of MHC similarity (r2) varied between nearly 0 and 23%. There was no apparent effect of gender in this correlation: the highest r2 was actually reached with one of the male odours sniffed by male smellers. Men and women who were reminded of their own mate/ex-mate when sniffing a T-shirt had significantly fewer MHC-alleles in common with this T-shirt-wearer than expected by chance. This suggests that the MHC or linked genes influence human mate choice. We found no significant effect when we tested for an influence of the MHC on odour preferences after the degree of similarity between T-shirt-wearer and smeller was statistically controlled for. This suggests that in our study populations the MHC influences body odour preferences mainly, if not exclusively, by the degree of similarity or dissimilarity. The observed preferences would increase heterozygosity in the progeny. They do not seem to aim for more specific MHC combinations.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alleles
  • Female
  • Genetic Linkage
  • Heterozygote
  • Humans
  • Major Histocompatibility Complex*
  • Male
  • Odorants*
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Sexual Behavior
  • Smell