As global temperatures continue to rise around the world more sticky, sweaty days are ahead, and with all that sweat production personal odoriferousness will most likely abound. Well thankfully now, investigators at the University of York and the University of Oxford have published new data bringing us a step closer to blocking body odor (BO). The findings from the new study—published recently in eLife through an article entitled “Structural basis of malodour precursor transport in the human axilla”—have unraveled a key part of the molecular process by which armpit bacteria produce the most pungent component of the noxious smell we recognize as BO.

“The skin of our underarms provides a unique niche for bacteria,” explained co-senior study investigator Gavin Thomas, Ph.D., professor in the department of biology at the University of York. “Through the secretions of various glands that open onto the skin or into hair follicles, this environment is nutrient-rich and hosts its own microbial community, the armpit microbiome, of many species of different microbes.”

While the role of microbes in the production of BO has been known for some time, scientists at the University of York recently discovered that a small number of species of Staphylococcus bacteria are responsible for the formation of the most pungent component of the aroma in our pits.

“Body odor [contains] a key chemical component of which is the sulfurous thioalcohol, 3-methyl-3-sulfanylhexan-1-ol (3M3SH),” the authors wrote. “Volatile 3M3SH is produced in the underarm as a result of specific microbial activity, which act on the odorless dipeptide-containing malodor precursor molecule, S-Cys-Gly-3M3SH, secreted in the axilla (underarm) during colonization.”

In the current paper, the research team deciphered the first step in this process by identifying and decoding the structure of transport protein that enables bacteria to recognize and swallow up the odorless compounds secreted in sweat.

“We report the structural and biochemical basis of bacterial transport of S-Cys-Gly-3M3SH by Staphylococcus hominis, which is converted to the sulfurous thioalcohol component 3M3SH in the bacterial cytoplasm, before being released into the environment,” the authors penned. “Knowledge of the molecular basis of precursor transport, essential for body odor formation, provides a novel opportunity to design specific inhibitors of malodor production in humans.”

“Modern deodorants work by inhibiting or killing many of the bacteria present our underarms in order to prevent BO,” Dr. Thomas added. “This study, along with our previous research revealing that only a small number of the bacteria in our armpits are actually responsible for bad smells, could result in the development of more targeted products that aim to inhibit the transport protein and block the production of BO.”

Solving the structure of the protein means that the new generation of deodorants could be developed to disrupt its function. While these new findings could result in more effective deodorants ingredients, the research team is also optimistic that their results provide insight that may also have important implications for medical science.

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