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Genetic mutation makes fermented fish less stinky

People with the gene are less sensitive to the rotten odor of trimethylamine

by Ariana Remmel
October 24, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 41


A young girl smells a pallet of fish in a market.
Credit: Jón Gústafsson/deCODE Genetics/Amgen Inc
Fishy odors are less offensive to people with a newly discovered genetic mutation.

Fermented fish is notorious for its foul odor, but some people can easily stomach the stench of trimethylamine. That may be thanks to a genetic mutation. A genome-wide association study led by Rósa Gísladóttir and Kári Stefánsson from deCODE Genetics turned up a variant of a trace amine olfactory receptor protein called TAAR5.The team asked more than 11,000 Icelanders to smell a sample of trimethylamine and describe its aroma. The reserachers found that people with a single missense mutation in the TAAR5 gene were less likely to associate a waft of trimethylamine with fermented shark or skate—if they could detect the rotten-smelling amine at all (Curr. Biol. 2020, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.09.012). Though the mutation is found in only a small subset of the population, further analysis shows that the TAAR5 variant is more common in Icelanders than in people from Sweden, Southern Europe, and Africa. Fermented fish products became important to Icelandic people in the Middle Ages, when fresh meat and salt-preserved foods were scarce. The TAAR5 mutation might be beneficial, Gísladóttir suggests, because “it’s actually quite helpful to be able to eat these foods, which have this horribly pungent smell of trimethylamine.”


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