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The College Magazine - Spring 2000 : Chemical Attractions Chemical Attractions

In his acceptance speech at the College of Arts and Sciences banquet where he was presented with the 1999 Distinguished Faculty Award, Milos Novotny recalled the journey that brought him to Indiana University. Born in Czechoslovakia, he earned his doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Brno in 1965. He left Czechoslovakia for a research post in Stockholm, Sweden, just weeks before Russian tanks moved in to repress the brief flowering of freedom known as the Prague Spring. Since 1971 he has been on the faculty at IU, but his international ties remain important to him. Science, he says, is an international discipline whose practitioners owe their first allegiance to the pursuit of knowledge. "I don’t think you can stop people from discovering," says Novotny. "It’s our basic human nature. We are curious. And of course we try to put our discoveries to good uses."
Milos Novotny
Pictured: Milos Novotny

Anyone who has ever leafed through a copy of Vogue or Mademoiselle is probably already familiar with the concept of pheromones. In the world of these magazines, pheromones are the mysterious substances that act subconsciously to produce sudden paroxysms of lust, adding their je-sais-exactly-quoi to expensive perfumes. Less sexily, they cause masses of women living together, as in dorms, to have their periods at the same time.

Well, the magazines don’t have it entirely wrong, but they don’t have it right, either. Pheromones—the real thing—are much less well understood and much more complex than the popular picture of sexual telepathy implies. They are also much more interesting.

Milos Novotny, James H. Rudy Professor of bioanalytical chemistry, has devoted a good part of the last twenty years or so to studying pheromones. His reaction to the notion that a dash of human pheromones in a bottle of perfume can spice up your sex life is a dismissive chuckle. All the same, there is clearly a note of passion in his voice when he discusses the subject.

"In the mid 1970s I became aware of pheromone communication in mammals," he says. Many studies had already been done on their effects on insects; Japanese beetle traps, for example, developed as a result of research done in the 60s, use pheromones to lure the beetles to their deaths. But even now, very few people are doing work with mammals. Novotny is one of the few. "Some people refer to me as the chemist in this field," he says, with some chagrin. "It’s nice to have something that is your own, but I wish more people were involved, to develop the field more quickly."

Novotny is drawn to research with mammals because their complexity is so great. There is, he says, "more plasticity to the behavior of the mammal," while insects respond in very consistent and predictable ways to chemical cues. "You synthesize pheromones in the lab, then there is a big danger all the ants in the building will come to that place," says Novotny. "Insects will follow slavishly a trail, animals think a little more."

Initially inspired by Marvin Carmack, professor emeritus of organic chemistry, Novotny began developing techniques for separating pheromones from the complex substances, such as urine, that carry them. He has worked mainly with mice and nocturnal animals whose poor vision demands that they rely heavily on the sense of smell.

"We have been able to reproduce the biological effect," Novotny says. "We can put man-made chemical on the skin of mice and cause them to fight."

In addition to inducing aggression, pheromones are linked to the following behavioral phenomena: Acceleration of puberty, dominance, synchronization of estrus, and, yes, sexual attraction.

It is hard to tell, in such a young field, where the research might lead. Pest control, as mentioned above, is one practical application, but there will certainly be many more. Novotny is particularly intrigued by the neurobiological aspects of his work "I’d like to see pheromone research leading to a better understanding of the sense of smell," he says. "The nose is the shortest possible route to our brain."

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Last Updated: December 15, 2000
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