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antagonistic coevolution

Sex, Food, Smell, and Death

Oh, those pheromones!

Oh, those pheromones!

I’m attracted to the opposite sex. I can’t help it. As Lady Gaga says, I was born this way. Lately, however, I’ve been reading that exposure to the opposite sex can lead to premature death, especially for males. It’s a scary thought.

As reported in the current issue of Science, the phenomenon might be called “female-induced demise” and it’s a clear cause-and-effect relationship. Researchers have shown that “… female-produced pheromones …can have detrimental effects on longevity and other age-related traits in male[s]….” Further, “It has long been known that having the opposite sex around can reduce fitness….”

You’re probably wondering, “Why didn’t someone warn me about this?” Before you get too upset, let me clarify that, so far, biologists have discovered the phenomenon only in nematode worms and fruit flies. Still, you have to wonder … today the nematode, tomorrow homo sapiens? And how many of us men haven’t been called a worm at some time in our lives?

But wait, it gets worse. Members of the opposite sex don’t even have to be physically present. Merely perceiving the opposite sex is enough to do the trick. And yes, this goes both ways: male-to-female and female-to-male. Our sense of smell seems to play a critical role. You don’t have to interact with the opposite sex to die young; you merely have to inhale their pheromones. As Science points out, “This is sufficient to decrease fat stores, increase mortality, … and decrease an animal’s overall size.”

But wait, it gets even worse. It also happens with food. Let’s say you’re on a low-calorie diet. You maintain your discipline, count your calories, and avoid fatty foods. But even the smell of fatty foods may be enough to limit the benefits of your diet. Science points out that “…just the smell of a rich diet is enough to increase mortality rate and prevent many of the benefits of a low-calorie diet.”

OK, OK … we’re talking about fruit flies and worms. And yet, you have to wonder. Is this why men have shorter life expectancies than women? Do people live longer in cultures that strictly segregate the sexes? Has Woody Allen heard about this? And do we need to amend the old saying to “Cut off your nose to spite your face … and prolong your life.”

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