Duke University is one of the strongest medical science institutions in the nation, ranking in the top 10 of 144 major medical centers. The Duke Medical Center includes 96 buildings and sits on 210 acres with an annual operating revenue of $3.6 Billion. One of the leading organizations that continues to show growth and make major advances in the basic science and medical fields is the Department of Molecular genetics and Microbiology. This department came into being nearly 10 years ago, resulting from merging the Molecular Genetics and Micro Biology buildings at Duke back in 2002.
One recent and very interesting study to come from this department focuses on taste and human food preferences.
According to a new study by Duke University research scientists, genetics may be the reason some people smell meat more powerfully, and consequently don’t like it. Working with research scientists from Norway, Duke University Medical Center scientists discovered that around 70 percent of people have two working copies of a gene linked to an odor receptor that senses androstenone, a compound found in male mammals and common in pork.
In the Duke University study, research scientists put different amounts of androstenone in pork meat samples. 23 participants rated the meat based on how it smelled and whether or not they enjoyed its taste.
Researchers divided the subjects into two groups – those who disliked the smell and taste, and those who weren’t offended by the pork. According to researchers, people with one or no working copies of the gene, known as OR7D4, didn’t mind the scent of androstenone as much as those with two.
Although 70 percent of people have two copies of OR7D4, most people don’t notice the smell of androstenone in their pork.
"In North America and Europe, pigs are castrated, so the concentration of androstenone is quite low," said Hiroaki Matsunami, a research scientist and associate professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at Duke University. "The only time you find a high concentration of androsteone is when you eat wild boar meat."
The low presence of androstenone in European pork could soon change, though. Researchers said that the European Union may ban the castration of pigs due to anxieties over animal cruelty. The question of whether or not to ban castration has revived scientific curiosity in how people perceive the smell of meat.
"The data raise the possibility that more consumers will dislike male meat as a result of a castration ban," the authors of the study wrote.
Matsunami is interested in continuing his research to learn more about why the OR7D4 gene illicits such a reaction to androstenone.
“Why do we need this particular gene? That’s a more difficult question to answer,” Matsunami said. “There’s speculation that this chemical might have an additional role, that it may also influence the physiology of the people who are smelling it. The reason people think that is because in the pig, it facilitates courtship behavior, so it’s an important chemical for their survival. Maybe the same chemical is having the same subtle effect on the human population.”
Though Duke University research scientists have more to learn about the human reaction to androstenone, their discoveries so far are nothing short of fascinating. The results of the study will certainly have a great influence on the pork industry, especially in Europe and North America.
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