Office workers, rejoice! Scientists move closer to eliminating body odour

3 Jul 2018

Image: sirtravelalot/Shutterstock

Anyone who has experienced a poorly ventilated, hot office will welcome the news that scientists have found what exactly produces body odour.

It has now passed into common knowledge that when we smell body odour (BO) either coming from us or from someone else, that smell is not being created by the sweat itself, but rather the bacteria that thrive in it, emitting the pungent smell.

The science behind the process has become better understood in the past few years, such as the fact that a small number of species of Staphylococcus bacteria are the ones responsible for the odour.

However, a new breakthrough achieved by a team from the University of York and the University of Oxford in the UK has helped solve one puzzle that has remained when it comes to BO: how the bacteria actually transform odourless compounds into smells that make you want to put a clothes peg on your nose.

In a paper published to eLife, the research team revealed it had deciphered the first step in the process by identifying and decoding the structure of the molecule.

The ‘transport protein’ – as it is referred to – enables bacteria to recognise and swallow up the odourless compounds, and transform them into sweat.

Deodorant makers, listen up

By solving the structure of the protein, deodorant-producing companies could actually be able to sell products that quash any attempts by the bacteria to produce BO, rather than just masking or killing all bacteria in the target area.

“Modern deodorants work by inhibiting or killing many of the bacteria present our underarms in order to prevent BO,” said Dr Gavin Thomas of the research team.

“This study, along with our previous research revealing that only a small number of the bacteria in our armpits are actually responsible for bad smells, could result in the development of more targeted products that aim to inhibit the transport protein and block the production of BO.”

With this new information, the researchers were able to see the molecular structure of the transport protein by crystallising it in the lab, thereby creating a blueprint for how it works and possible ways to make BO a thing of the past.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic