Decoding the social volatilome by tracking rapid context-dependent odour change



Roberts SC, Misztal PK & Langford B (2020) Decoding the social volatilome by tracking rapid context-dependent odour change. Philosophical Transactions B: Biological Sciences, 375 (1800), Art. No.: 20190259.

Odours can have a significant influence on the outcome of social interactions. However, we have yet to characterize the chemical signature of any specific social cue in human body odour, and we know little about how changes in social context influence odour chemistry. Here, we argue that adoption of emerging analytical techniques from other disciplines, such as atmospheric chemistry, might become game-changing tools in this endeavour. First, we describe the use of online chemical ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry to sensitively measure many hundreds of gas-phase volatile organic compounds in real time. By analysing ambient air emanating from undisturbed individuals or groups, the technique enables a continuous recording of an instantaneous odour change in response to external stimuli and changing social context. This has considerable advantages over the traditional approach of periodic sampling for analysis by gas chromatography. We also discuss multivariate statistical approaches, such as positive matrix factorization, that can effectively sift through this complex datastream to identify linked groups of compounds that probably underpin functional chemosignals. In combination, these innovations offer new avenues for addressing outstanding questions concerning olfactory communication in humans and other species, as well as in related fields using odour, such as biometrics and disease diagnostics.

odour; chemosignal; smell; pheromone; volatilome; olfaction

Philosophical Transactions B: Biological Sciences: Volume 375, Issue 1800

Publication date30/04/2020
Publication date online20/04/2020
Date accepted by journal08/12/2019

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Professor Craig Roberts

Professor Craig Roberts

Professor of Social Psychology, Psychology