Can You Smell That Smell?
It was really good to meet my friend’s newborn baby for the first time. A cute boy! Oh his lovely face and soft skin. He was just born from a sterile environment but quickly became colonized by microbes.
Joana and I are excited to work on microbiome of couples to see how our skin bacteria play a role in determining body odor. The smell which can attract our partner. The skin, the barrier between the body and the outside world, is the human body’s largest organ, colonized by microorganisms, actually most of which are harmless. Skin is affected by health conditions, genetics, diet, age, cosmetics, soaps, climate zones. Also environmental factors, such as occupation, clothing choice and antibiotic usage, may modulate colonization by the skin microbiota. The skin flora affects the degree of attractiveness of human. I remember a patient of mine …
Patient: Doc! I like how my husband smells. I mean in general, not only during sex. I wish they sold a cologne that smelled like him. Is it normal?
Me: It is normal to like a nice potent pheromone. Yes, certain body odors are connected to human sexual attraction.
A friend of mine told me she dated a guy about six months ago. After two weeks of dating she realized his body odor reminded her of dead fish. Happily ended relationship.
In fact the body smell is a combination of different factors including mental or physical stress, hormonal fluctuations and microbes. Of course our own olfactory ability is important as well.
Questions from Joana to Pooneh: I’d love to know more about you and about the science of smell!
More updates on the microbiome work that I have done and am doing. What do you think, Pooneh?
Our conversations have converged on exploring the microbiome of couples and how the bacteria that live in our skins play a role in determining body odor and therefore play a role in attraction and the life of the couple.
P: Nice, we are going to work on it.
In our initial introduction, I talked to Pooneh about my artistic exploration of the microbiome (=all the non-human organisms that live in our body), but especially skin microbes. I am fascinated with the notion that these non-human parts of us can’t be dismissed as a biological add-on to the human wetware, they are an essential part of our biology and play an integral if largely unknown role in determining who we are. In this work, I’ve used microbial samples as stand-ins for the individual and their background, creating portraits and landscapes of “other selves” looking to the microbes expression to talk about the uniqueness of each person and the similarities that bind us to each other and to our environment.
Combining samples from people and places has been very interesting: generally environmental samples have thrived better in the artificial growth conditions I provide and add a whole new visual and biological dimension (all 400+ portraits are here microbialart.tumblr.com). Seeing many individual “portraits” together, the similarities and differences resonate clearly and poetically.
Recently, I created a piece that looked at the city of Raleigh, combining environmental samples from multiple sites in the city and from many individuals who live or visit the city. I was curious and generally uncertain about the result of combining so many different sources in a single plate: would one sample, or part of a sample, just overtake the entire plate? Would nothing grow? In each plate, the species must find a way to survive: they must conquer they space, compete and in some cases collaborate to live. It was really amazing to see a huge diversity grow!
P: Cool, Joana I like it.
In this detail, the circles indicate where a person’s sample was plated. I generally plate a human sample in a spiral shape but, as we can see here, they will do as they will. Around the circles I added environmental samples, like the line at the top and along the left and also along the right. The plates were also exposed to the air, capturing whatever was blowing the wind. I was really happily surprised with the result: the microbes did not “color within the lines” - in some cases it is impossible to tell where human or environment stops and ends.
In last week’s post, I shared some images of simpler plates that combined only samples from me and my husband. It’s possible the more limited results came from the delay between getting the samples and getting them on the agar.
In terms of smell, though, all of these plates smell A LOT and NOT VERY WELL. Something like a million dirty socks. If that was a signal of whether I was attracted to my husband, we’d be in a bad state!...
P: Lol, funny.
Also, interestingly, this week I participated in a long-table conversation hosted by the Ligo project, where people from different backgrounds: a researcher, an educator/citizen scientist leader, cultural anthropologist and artist (me!) came together to facilitate a conversation on the role of microbiome in culture. It was fascinating how a conversation can start in place of scientific inquiry and range as wide topics as health, climate change, holy grail economics, social inequality and the imperfection of political systems. It was a perfect encapsulation of the driver (my driver) for doing this type of work: scientific knowledge and questions don’t hesitate in isolation but are essential to our our understanding of ourselves, our relationship to each other and our place in the world. Like with this project, the science of body odor may hold a lot of insight to relationships.
P: I would like to attend these meetings.
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Pooneh Heshmati is an award-winning cognitive neuroscientist, physician, and post doctoral researcher at Northwell Health in New York.
Joana Ricou is an award-winning NYC-based artist, and creative director of Regenerative Medicine Partnership for Life.