Atmospheric scientists join pheromone quest

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Science  12 Apr 2019:
Vol. 364, Issue 6436, pp. 112
DOI: 10.1126/science.364.6436.112

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Jonathan Williams, an atmospheric chemist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, has recently joined a decades-old quest: The search for a human pheromone—a chemical signal in human body odor. At a recent meeting on chemical communication in humans, organized by the Royal Society, Williams presented how the workhorse technique for studying trace chemicals in the atmosphere, proton transfer reaction mass spectrometry (PTR-MS), could rescue the field from the doldrums. Since the first pheromone was isolated from female silkmoths in 1959, generations of researchers have looked for similarly powerful chemicals in humans, but without success. Many scientists have asked participants to put pads under their armpits and then analyzed the captured compounds with a mass spectrometer. That gives a snapshot. But PTR-MS is more like producing a video. It allows researchers to measure compounds in real time and to identify those that change in abundance after a certain type of stimulation.