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The Molecular Basis of Thioalcohol Production in Human Body Odour


Dr Michelle Rudden

Lecturer in Biomedicine

Professor Gavin Thomas

Professor Gavin Thomas

Chair in Microbiology, University of York



About the research

The research was led by Dr Michelle Rudden and Professor Gavin Thomas from the University of York’s Department of Biology, along with other team members, in collaboration with Unilever.

They studied the role of body odour (BO) in human behaviour and evolution, which is still not fully understood. The research focused on the presence of certain species of commensal microbes that are linked to body odour.

The team discovered a unique bacterial enzyme, found only in odour-forming staphylococci, that can break down odourless precursors of thioalcohols, the most pungent components of body odour. 

Industry application

The research was conducted in the field of microbiology and biochemistry, with a collaboration between academic researchers from the University of York and scientists from the consumer goods company, Unilever.

Study findings

The scientists discovered an enzyme, called cysteine-thiol lyase (C-T lyase), which is crucial for creating body odour. This enzyme, which depends on a molecule called PLP, became part of a specific group of bacteria that produce body odour around 60 million years ago. Since then, it has adapted to work with substances in the human body that lead to the production of thioalcohols, the main culprits behind body odour.

Interestingly, if this enzyme is introduced to bacteria that don't normally produce odour, they start producing it. This shows that the C-T lyase enzyme is the key player in creating body odour.

The scientists also found that the enzyme has evolved over time to create a special pocket that can hold and work on the substances that lead to body odour. This suggests that the production of body odour in humans is a very old process that has been happening for millions of years.


Unilever body odour project (Gavin Thomas) - 2020 paper on the BO lyase (Altmetric of >2000).

Science Vs podcast

Rudden, M., Herman, R., Rose, M. et al. The molecular basis of thioalcohol production in human body odour. Sci Rep 10, 12500 (2020).

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