Scimex: A study identified the genetic origin of the ability to smell the strong, characteristic odor in human urine produced after eating asparagus. A team of U.S. and European researchers found hundreds of variants in the DNA sequence across multiple genes involved in sense of smell that are strongly associated with the ability to detect asparagus metabolites in urine. They say more research is needed to understand why such food results in a particular odor, and what selective pressures would result in such a significant genetic predisposition to be able to smell - or not smell - the metabolites.
Asparagus is considered a
delicacy, but it’s also known to produce a distinctive odor in urine.
Not everyone can detect the odour of metabolites (methanethiol and
S-methyl thioesters) produced by consumption of asparagus.
researchers, led by Sarah Markt and Lorelei Mucci at the Harvard T.H.
Chan School of Public Health, set out to determine whether genetic
factors are important in the ability to smell the odor.
study involved 6,909 men and women of European-American descent from two
cohorts: the Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-up
Findings show that 40% (2,748/6,909) of participants agreed
that they could smell a distinct odor in their urine after eating
asparagus, and 60% (4,161/6,909) said they could not and were labelled
as ‘asparagus anosmic’.
The researchers linked information from
genome wide association studies on over 9 million genetic variants with
the asparagus anosmia trait.
They discovered 871 particular
variations in DNA sequence, known as single nucleotide polymorphisms, on
chromosome 1 which were associated with being asparagus anosmic. These
genetic variants were found in several different genes responsible for
sense of smell.
They also found that a higher proportion of women
reported they were unable to detect the odor, compared to men, despite
women being known to more accurately and consistently identify smells.
researchers suggest that this unexpected result might be due to
under-reporting by a few modest women, or because they might be less
likely to notice an unusual odor because of their position during
Study limitations include self reporting of odor,
rather than an objective measurement, although this is unlikely to
explain their findings, and the sample focusing on people of European
descent, so it’s unknown whether the same genetic variants predict
asparagus anosmia in other ethnicities.
The authors explain that
“our findings present candidate genes of interest for future research on
the structure and function of olfactory (sense of smell) receptors and
on the compounds responsible for the distinctive odor produced by
“Future replication studies are necessary
before considering targeted therapies to help anosmic people discover
what they are missing.”
They also note that asparagus provides a
rich source of iron, fiber, zinc, folate, and vitamins A, E and C, and
consumption is thought to reduce risk of cancer, cognitive impairment,
and cardiovascular related diseases.
Therefore, they call for
research to “consider using these identified single nucleotide
polymorphisms to better understand how a lifetime of eating asparagus
might protect people from developing chronic conditions.”