Women want a man who smells like dad

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Scientists may have come closer to solving one of life's eternal mysteries: how does a woman choose Mr Right? The answer could be that he smells like her father.

A new study has shown for the first time that a sexual preference for particular people can be influenced by genetic inheritance, according to Martha McClintock, Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago, who led the study.

But the strength of the attraction depends on how closely the man's genes match those of her father. "Women can actually smell genetic differences. They can smell differences as small as a single gene," Professor McClintock said.

Each participant was tested for a type of genetic variation called HLA compatibility, a good measure of how similar one person's genes are to another.

"The women did not choose the scents of men with genes totally similar to their own or totally dissimilar to their own. They choose men with an intermediate level of difference," Professor McClintock said. Moreover, a woman's choice "is based on HLA alleles [genes] inherited from her father, but not her mother", she said.

The research, published today in Nature Genetics, used a panel of 49 unmarried women to assess the natural scent of a group of men by sniffing their T-shirts. Each shirt was washed before being worn for two nights by the men, who also ate bland food and avoided cigarettes and sex. The women were asked to rate each shirt – which they could smell but not see – according to familiarity, intensity, pleasantness and spiciness.

"Our goal was not to measure which scent women were sexually attracted to. Rather, our goal was to find out what smell these women wanted to be around all the time," Professor McClintock said. "You may love the smell of garlic, but not want to be around it 24 hours a day."