In Search of Human Pheromones

2 Nov 2015

A pheromone is a chemical signal transmitted as the molecules of one compound or, more often, a particular combination of compounds, between the members of a single species. Although the isolation and subsequent synthesis of the first animal pheromone to be identified, bombykol in the silk moth, was achieved in 1959 following several years of exemplary work carried out under the supervision of Adolf Butenandt at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Germany, studies by others in the intervening years of compounds claimed to be human pheromones have failed to be accompanied by reliable experimental evidence to substantiate the claims. Since 1959, however, many more pheromones have been identified in animals, including mice, rabbits and goats. As humans are also mammals there are, therefore, reasonable grounds for supposing that our species does indeed produce pheromones.

The continuing search for human pheromones is by no means simply one of scientific curiosity. As Alex Comfort pointed out in an article in Nature in 1971, their discovery ‘....might open a new chapter in reproductive pharmacology...’ owing, in part, to the ability of many pheromones to operate ‘ a level of molecules rather than milligrams.’ Moreover, the major advances that have taken place in the development of analytical instrumentation (e.g. gas liquid chromatography, mass spectrometry, etc.) and sampling techniques since the late 1950s have made the unambiguous identification of these compounds, should they exist in humans, a less daunting undertaking than that which led to the identification of bombykol. However, the identification of these compounds in humans is unlikely to be an easy task as the animal pheromones discovered so far do not belong to a single class of compounds but vary widely in their polarity and in the size of their molecules, from small volatile organic compounds (e.g. the rabbit mammary pheromone, 2-methyl-2-butenal, mass 84 Da) to large non-volatile protein molecules (e.g. darcin, mass ca 17 kDa, found in mice).

The quest for human pheromones over the last fifty years has included the publication of the results of some studies of very dubious quality in respectable peer reviewed journals, despite the fact that Butenandt’s work had clearly established the standards as to how such research should be done. You can hear more about this fascinating saga in Dr Tristram Wyatt’s lecture, ‘Human Pheromones: Where did we go wrong? What should we do next?’ on Wednesday 18 November 2015. This lecture has been organised by SCI’s London Regional Group in association with New York University London and is taking place at the University’s historic Grade I listed building in Bedford Square, that was formerly the residence of Lord Eldon (Lord Chancellor, 1801-06 and 1807-27). Refreshments will be served in the panelled reception room both before and after the lecture.

The event is free to attend, but registration is required. Please click on the link below to book.

Julian Perfect,
Secretary, SCI London Group

Comfort, A. (1971) Likelihood of Human Pheromones, Nature 230, pp 432-433 & 479
Wyatt, T.D. (2014) Pheromones and Animal Behavior: Chemical Signals and Signatures, 2nd edn. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Wyatt, T.D. (2015) The search for human pheromones: the lost decades and the necessity of returning to first principles. Proc Roy Soc B: 282: 2014.2994

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