Following his nose - Hanns Hatt awarded Communicator Prize 2010 | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 07.06.2010
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Following his nose - Hanns Hatt awarded Communicator Prize 2010

His research has uncovered some interesting findings – including the fact that sperm are drawn to the scent of lilies of the valley. Hanns Hatt is being honored with the German Communicator Prize 2010 for his work.

A woman smelling an orchid

Our sense of smell is extremely complex

Smells, scents, and odors are all around us. Some so overpowering we have to hold our noses against their assault, and some so subtle we might not notice them at all. Unlike our senses of touch, sight and hearing, our sense of smell is a chemical reaction. Only our sense of taste comes close to being as complex, and even that requires smell to work completely properly. Professor Hanns Hatt knows all about these. He is the foremost expert on smells in Germany.

Professor Hanns Hatt

Professor Hanns Hatt: the self-proclaimed ambassador of smell

Professor Hatt knew from early on what he wanted to do with his life and to reach his goal one might say he simply had to follow his nose. These days he considers himself the ambassador of smell.

"You don't just have eyes and ears, you have a nose as well. So use it. Your nose can make you aware of things around you and give you information about stuff in ways that nothing else can," he said.

350 receptors and a scent for each one

Hatt, who studied biology and chemistry, was hired on at the Max Planck Institute in Munich by the Nobel Prize winning scientist Konrad Lorenz. There he was tasked with tracing butterflies' sense of smell. He found the field fascinating and found it soon led to a love of smell.

But insects only have about 50 smell receptors at their disposal. So Hanns Hatt turned to a more promising subject: the human olfactory organ – more commonly referred to as the nose. Humans have significantly more smell receptors to work with; around 300 more, in fact. So far the 63-year-old researcher has decoded 15 of them. His research has shown that scents and smells strongly influence human feelings and actions.

"We know, for example, that smell is the number one mood killer and influences the way people act around one another. That means that a bad odor – be it bad breath or smelly feet – will push people away, regardless of how attractive they find someone," he said.

According to Hatt, in addition to the artificial aromas like perfume we carry around with us, each of us has our own particular smell that is specific to us – just like a fingerprint. So in order to take in their environment in all its glory, people need to go through life with an open nose, said Hatt. Advice he himself naturally sticks to just about every moment of every day.

"Whenever I have an aisle seat in a train or on a plane I use the opportunity to not only look at the people who walk past me, but to also appreciate their scent. And some really fascinating things can be discerned. Sometimes the scent doesn't really go with the individual and other times you think: Oh! They're not really that attractive, but they have a great smell," he said.

Microscopic view of sperm cells

Even without noses, sperm cells can pick up on scents given off by viable eggs

How do you smell without a nose?

Hanns Hatt has caused a bit of commotion in the scientific world by proving that humans don't only smell with their noses. Within our bodies there are scent receptors that reactor to different odors. For example, sperm cells are drawn to the scent of lilies of the valley, which leads them to a viable egg.

"Human sperm also carry scent receptors on their surface. They're actually little olfactory cells with small tails that can recognize the scent given off by a lily of the valley."

In his lab at the Ruhr University Bochum, Hatt has uncovered a further 20 scent receptors that can be found on the surface of sperm. And the scent researcher will certainly keep staring into his microscope until he has figured out exactly what each receptor is drawn to and how that helps the sperm find their way to the egg. Hatt has also found scent receptors in the human prostate gland. These receptors react very strong to the scent given off by violets. This discovery could help push prostate medicine forward, since, according to Hatt's research, the scent of violets keeps prostate cancer cells from dividing.

And there are other facets to Professor Hatt's research, including helping people get over their phobias. Hatt's team has patented a mixture of jasmine extract, which when sniffed, travels through the lungs, into the blood stream and up to the brain. There the smell of jasmine has roughly the same calming effects as valium. Plus there are currently no known pharmacological side effects.

Of course this research does have its limits. A good example can be found just by looking at the role scents play in the interactions between the sexes. Professor Hatt has little hope or expectations there since "it's hardly conceivable that we would find one fragrance that would make everyone happy, that would sexually excite everyone or that would make everyone attractive."

Author: Klaus Deuse (mrm)
Editor: Stuart Tiffen

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