Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic
Published July 1, 2010
A guy who can shed a tear really can drive females wild—among mice, at least.
According to a new study, male mouse tears contain a sex pheromone called ESP1, which makes female mice more receptive to mounting.
While sex pheromones are known to have similar effects in other animals, the new study shows for the first time how the interaction works "at the molecular level and also the brain level," said study co-author Kazushige Touhara of the University of Tokyo.
Male mice shed tears to keep their eyes from drying out. As they groom themselves, the tears—and the pheromone—get spread around their bodies and nests.
When female mice come in contact with a male or his nest, they pick up the pheromone via a nose organ called the vomeronasal, where the pheromone binds to a specific protein receptor.
"She has to touch it, because this is not a volatile compound like a fragrance," Touhara said, referring to the ease with which some chemicals turn into vapor.
Upon contact, the pheromone is sent to sex-specific regions in the female's brain. The female mouse is then three times more likely to engage in what's called lordosis behavior, a posture shown by many animals in heat in which they thrust their rumps and tails upward.
Tears as a Captive Breeding Tool?
Humans lack the gene that codes for ESP1 and its receptor, so men are unlikely to gain a sexual edge—chemically speaking—if they decide to show their more sensitive sides, Touhara noted. (Get a human genetics overview.)
"But the thing is, in human society we don't use chemical communication anymore, because we have good eyesight"—for visually sizing up attractive mates—"and we use language," he said. (Related: "True Love" in National Geographic magazine.)
The findings, however, may have real-world applications for mouse population control.
"Most of the wild mice express this pheromone robustly, but surprisingly, most of the laboratory mice don't," he said. This has led to a decrease in lab-mouse breeding efficiency, which means that researchers may be spending more time and money than necessary to get animals genetically suited for lab experiments.
Touhara's team has applied to patent the pheromone as a tool to "increase the mating chances for laboratory mice."
Findings appear in this week's issue of the journal Nature.
Take a peek at polar bears playing, swimming, and sleeping in their changing habitat.
By winning protection for their boreal forest, indigenous Canadians help slow global warming.
Our correspondent reports from a Norwegian research ship that's drifting inside the Arctic ice cap, gathering data needed to predict its future.
The Future of Food
How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?
We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.