The search for human pheromones: the lost decades and the necessity of returning to first principles
- Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society
- Published over 5 years ago
As humans are mammals, it is possible, perhaps even probable, that we have pheromones. However, there is no robust bioassay-led evidence for the widely published claims that four steroid molecules are human pheromones: androstenone, androstenol, androstadienone and estratetraenol. In the absence of sound reasons to test the molecules, positive results in studies need to be treated with scepticism as these are highly likely to be false positives. Common problems include small sample sizes, an overestimate of effect size (as no effect can be expected), positive publication bias and lack of replication. Instead, if we are to find human pheromones, we need to treat ourselves as if we were a newly discovered mammal, and use the rigorous methods already proven successful in pheromone research on other species. Establishing a pheromone relies on demonstration of an odour-mediated behavioural or physiological response, identification and synthesis of the bioactive molecule(s), followed by bioassay confirmation of activity. Likely sources include our sebaceous glands. Comparison of secretions from adult and pre-pubertal humans may highlight potential molecules involved in sexual behaviour. One of the most promising human pheromone leads is a nipple secretion from the areola glands produced by all lactating mothers, which stimulates suckling by any baby not just their own.
Based on molecular dating, the origin of insect agriculture is hypothesized to have taken place independently in three clades of fungus-farming insects: the termites, ants or ambrosia beetles during the Paleogene (66-24 Ma). Yet, definitive fossil evidence of fungus-growing behavior has been elusive, with no unequivocal records prior to the late Miocene (7-10 Ma). Here we report fossil evidence of insect agriculture in the form of fossil fungus gardens, preserved within 25 Ma termite nests from southwestern Tanzania. Using these well-dated fossil fungus gardens, we have recalibrated molecular divergence estimates for the origins of termite agriculture to around 31 Ma, lending support to hypotheses suggesting an African Paleogene origin for termite-fungus symbiosis; perhaps coinciding with rift initiation and changes in the African landscape.
Identification of a queen and king recognition pheromone in the subterranean termiteReticulitermes flavipes
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
- Published over 2 years ago
Chemical communication is fundamental to success in social insect colonies. Species-, colony-, and caste-specific blends of cuticular hydrocarbons (CHCs) and other chemicals have been well documented as pheromones, mediating important behavioral and physiological aspects of social insects. More specifically, royal pheromones used by queens (and kings in termites) enable workers to recognize and care for these vital individuals and maintain the reproductive division of labor. In termites, however, no royal-recognition pheromones have been identified to date. In the current study, solvent extracts of the subterranean termiteReticulitermes flavipeswere analyzed to assess differences in cuticular compounds among castes. We identified a royal-specific hydrocarbon-heneicosane-and several previously unreported and highly royal enriched long-chain alkanes. When applied to glass dummies, heneicosane elicited worker behavioral responses identical to those elicited by live termite queens, including increased vibratory shaking and antennation. Further, the behavioral effects of heneicosane were amplified when presented with nestmate termite workers' cuticular extracts, underscoring the importance of chemical context in termite royal recognition. Thus, heneicosane is a royal-recognition pheromone that is active in both queens and kings ofR. flavipesThe use of heneicosane as a queen and king recognition pheromone by termites suggests that CHCs evolved as royal pheromones ∼150 million years ago, ∼50 million years before their first use as queen-recognition pheromones in social Hymenoptera. We therefore infer that termites and social Hymenoptera convergently evolved the use of these ubiquitous compounds in royal recognition.
Sensory perception modulates aging and physiology across taxa. We found that perception of female sexual pheromones through a specific gustatory receptor expressed in a subset of foreleg neurons in male fruit flies, Drosophila melanogaster, rapidly and reversibly decreases fat stores, reduces resistance to starvation, and limits life span together with neurons that express the reward-mediating neuropeptide F. High-throughput RNA-seq experiments revealed a set of molecular processes that were impacted by the activity of the longevity circuit, thereby identifying new candidate cell non-autonomous aging mechanisms. Mating reversed the effects of pheromone perception, suggesting a model where life span is modulated through integration of sensory and reward circuits and where healthy aging may be compromised when the expectations defined by sensory perception are discordant with ensuing experience.
Many dynamical networks, such as the ones that produce the collective behavior of social insects, operate without any central control, instead arising from local interactions among individuals. A well-studied example is the formation of recruitment trails in ant colonies, but many ant species do not use pheromone trails. We present a model of the regulation of foraging by harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex barbatus) colonies. This species forages for scattered seeds that one ant can retrieve on its own, so there is no need for spatial information such as pheromone trails that lead ants to specific locations. Previous work shows that colony foraging activity, the rate at which ants go out to search individually for seeds, is regulated in response to current food availability throughout the colony’s foraging area. Ants use the rate of brief antennal contacts inside the nest between foragers returning with food and outgoing foragers available to leave the nest on the next foraging trip. Here we present a feedback-based algorithm that captures the main features of data from field experiments in which the rate of returning foragers was manipulated. The algorithm draws on our finding that the distribution of intervals between successive ants returning to the nest is a Poisson process. We fitted the parameter that estimates the effect of each returning forager on the rate at which outgoing foragers leave the nest. We found that correlations between observed rates of returning foragers and simulated rates of outgoing foragers, using our model, were similar to those in the data. Our simple stochastic model shows how the regulation of ant colony foraging can operate without spatial information, describing a process at the level of individual ants that predicts the overall foraging activity of the colony.
Many mammals use scent marking for sexual and competitive advertisement, but little is known about the mechanism by which scents are used to locate mates and competitors. We show that darcin, an involatile protein sex pheromone in male mouse urine, can rapidly condition preference for its remembered location among females and competitor males so that animals prefer to spend time in the site even when scent is absent. Learned spatial preference is conditioned through contact with darcin in a single trial and remembered for approximately 14 days. This pheromone-induced learning allows animals to relocate sites of particular social relevance and provides proof that pheromones such as darcin can be highly potent stimuli for social learning.
Mammalian pheromones control a myriad of innate social behaviors and acutely regulate hormone levels. Responses to pheromones are highly robust, reproducible, and stereotyped and likely involve developmentally predetermined neural circuits. Here, I review several facets of pheromone transduction in mammals, including (a) chemosensory receptors and signaling components of the main olfactory epithelium and vomeronasal organ involved in pheromone detection; (b) pheromone-activated neural circuits subject to sex-specific and state-dependent modulation; and © the striking chemical diversity of mammalian pheromones, which range from small, volatile molecules and sulfated steroids to large families of proteins. Finally, I review (d) molecular mechanisms underlying various behavioral and endocrine responses, including modulation of puberty and estrous; control of reproduction, aggression, suckling, and parental behaviors; individual recognition; and distinguishing of own species from predators, competitors, and prey. Deconstruction of pheromone transduction mechanisms provides a critical foundation for understanding how odor response pathways generate instinctive behaviors. Expected final online publication date for the Annual Review of Physiology Volume 76 is February 10, 2014. Please see http://www.annualreviews.org/catalog/pubdates.aspx for revised estimates.
Androstadienone, a component of male sweat, has been suggested to function as a human pheromone, an airborne chemical signal causing specific responses in conspecifics. In earlier studies androstadienone has been reported to increase attraction, affect subjects' mood, cortisol levels and activate brain areas linked to social cognition, among other effects. However, the existing psychological evidence is still relatively scarce, especially regarding androstadienone’s effects on male behaviour. The purpose of this study was to look for possible behavioural effects in male subjects by combining two previously distinct branches of research: human pheromone research and behavioural game theory of experimental economics. Forty male subjects participated in a mixed-model, double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment. The participants were exposed to either androstadienone or a control stimulus, and participated in ultimatum and dictator games, decision making tasks commonly used to measure cooperation and generosity quantitatively. Furthermore, we measured participants' salivary cortisol and testosterone levels during the experiment. Salivary testosterone levels were found to positively correlate with cooperative behaviour. After controlling for the effects of participants' baseline testosterone levels, androstadienone was found to increase cooperative behaviour in the decision making tasks. To our knowledge, this is the first study to show that androstadienone directly affects behaviour in human males.
Pathogens and parasites can manipulate their hosts to optimize their own fitness. For instance, bacterial pathogens have been shown to affect their host plants' volatile and non-volatile metabolites, which results in increased attraction of insect vectors to the plant, and, hence, to increased pathogen dispersal. Behavioral manipulation by parasites has also been shown for mice, snails and zebrafish as well as for insects. Here we show that infection by pathogenic bacteria alters the social communication system of Drosophila melanogaster. More specifically, infected flies and their frass emit dramatically increased amounts of fly odors, including the aggregation pheromones methyl laurate, methyl myristate, and methyl palmitate, attracting healthy flies, which in turn become infected and further enhance pathogen dispersal. Thus, olfactory cues for attraction and aggregation are vulnerable to pathogenic manipulation, and we show that the alteration of social pheromones can be beneficial to the microbe while detrimental to the insect host.Behavioral manipulation of host by pathogens has been observed in vertebrates, invertebrates, and plants. Here the authors show that in Drosophila, infection with pathogenic bacteria leads to increased pheromone release, which attracts healthy flies. This process benefits the pathogen since it enhances bacterial dispersal, but is detrimental to the host.
Ants use pheromones to coordinate their communal activity. Volatile pyrazines, for instance, mediate food resource gathering and alarm behaviors in different ant species. Here we report that leaf-cutter ant-associated bacteria produce a family of pyrazines that includes members previously identified as ant trail and alarm pheromones. We found that L-threonine induces the bacterial production of the trail pheromone pyrazines, which are common for the host leaf-cutter ants. Isotope feeding experiments revealed that L-threonine along with sodium acetate were the biosynthetic precursors of these natural products and a biosynthetic pathway was proposed.