Apr. 12, 2009 Dating websites will soon be able to compare partners in terms of whether the personal body odour of the other party will be pleasant to them. This has a very serious biological background.
If the start-up company Basisnote get their way, we will soon not only be able to match looks and interests in the profile of a potential partner with our own preferences. Now even the individual smell of the other party can be recorded in the profile and then checked to see if it will be pleasant for us. Even before going on the first date.
“If everything fits, you have the same interests, lots to talk about, but you can’t stand their smell, then a love affair doesn’t stand a chance,” explains biologist August Hämmerli. He makes the online smell profile possible with his company Basisnote. The start-up from Bern has worked together with ETH to develop a fast test to determine your own body odour and enter it as a code in a database. If the flirt partner has also entered their smell profile, you can find out within seconds whether you would like their smell.
All of this works by taking a saliva test, which can be carried out easily at home. It works with a chromatographic process, similar to a pregnancy test. The result: a simple digital code, which can be entered into an online profile. All of this takes no longer than twenty minutes. Hämmerli continues: “Obviously, smell is by no means the only factor in choosing a partner. However, our test makes it a measurable component.” The company is developing the test together with Mathias Wegner, head assistant at the Paul Schmidt-Hempel chair at the Institute for Integrative Biology. The test will appear on the market this year in cooperation with an online dating provider.
Immunity check through the nose
This all sounds like another gag for online dating platforms. Far from it. According to an explanatory model by evolutionary biologists, there is a valid explanation for why our nose is so important when it comes to choosing our partner. It is not without reason that we have to literally be able to “stand the smell” of our partner, if we are to find them likeable or even more. Our nose has sensitive receptors. They probe whether the other party has as few similar genes to us as possible. The more varied the gene pools are, the higher the chance for healthy, strong offspring.
It has been a well-known fact for a long time that mice check their potential mating partners by smelling them. The fact that humans do the same on a subconscious level was first proven in the nineties by biologist Claus Wedekind at University of Bern. He let female students smell T-shirts that had been worn by male test persons. The women had to indicate the smell that they found to be the most pleasant. It was shown that they consistently chose the men whose immune system was most different from their own.
How does this work? Basisnote founder August Hämmerli explains: “The genes of the MHC, the Major Histocompatibility Complex, carry the instructions for important building blocks of the immune system, the MHC proteins.” These bind fragments of foreign proteins, for example following an infection, and pass them on to the body’s own defence cells, which initiate a defence reaction. The more different MHC molecules someone has, the more different pathogens his body can defend against. In humans, there are more than one hundred variations of each of the nine most important MHC genes. The more varied the MHC, the better the immune systems of the offspring will be armed. Hämmerli: “The specific body odour is marked by the MHC combination. It is transmitted in the bodily fluids and transformed into the body’s very own smell on the skin.” The stronger the difference in immune system between the potential partner and yourself, the more pleasant you will find their smell.
Test instead of a T-shirt
According to Hämmerli, Basisnote is really just applying Wedekind’s T-shirt study to a standardised test system. August Hämmerli is so convinced of the success of his idea that he gave up his position as scientist at ETH to found the company. The Bern-born man coordinates the interface between the interested firms and the research work at the ETH laboratories. Co-founder Dominic Senn is an economist and political scientist. He also worked as a scientist at ETH up to the founding of the company, and is now responsible for the development of the business as CEO. Physicist Manuel Kaegi, who is just finishing his dissertation at the laboratory for safety analysis at ETH, looks after the IT implementation at Basisnote and interfaces with existing online dating platforms.
For two-and-a-half years, the three men have collected development funds and worked intensively on the details of the product. Now all technical issues have been resolved and it only remains to define the most user-friendly application. They are also preparing the first scientific publications on the subject.
The negotiations with online dating platforms are in their final phase. Hämmerli is happy to say that there has been great interest. He is reluctant to reveal which partner search site will soon be featuring smell as a dating component. This will have to wait until the autumn.
Setting up their own partner search site is out of the question. Their plans for the future are along other lines: “There are so many interesting areas. Once all of this is up and running, we want to have a look at the perfume sector,” Hämmerli reveals.
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