Why the Chinese don’t buy deodorant

In human populations a SNP in ABCC11 is correlated with two salient traits: 1) wet or dry earwax 2) body odor. When I had my first son sequenced before his birth the main variant of phenotypic consequence that I noticed (aside from him being a heterozygote on KITLG), was that he carried a derived mutation on this position. Meaning that he was going to have dry earwax and fewer issues with body odor.

My wife and I are both heterozygotes. This is not too surprising. The derived variant is actually greater than 50% in Bengalis in the 1000 Genomes (in South India the derived variant is also around ~50%), while about ~25% of Northern Europeans are heterozygotes.

This genetic story came to my mind again because of this article in The New York Times, Aiming at China’s Armpits: When Foreign Brands Misfire:

There’s another reason few Chinese consumers buy deodorant: basic biology.

Scientists in recent years have shown that many East Asians, a group that includes China’s ethnic Han majority, have a gene that lowers the likelihood of a strong “human axillary odor” — scientist-speak for body stink.

That lowers the likelihood that they will use deodorant to begin with, according to a 2013 study by researchers at the University of Bristol and Brunel University in Britain, after a survey of nearly 6,500 women of various backgrounds.

“It is likely that deodorant usage is not widely adopted because there is, for much of the East Asia population, no need for it,” it said. (For those curious about such matters, that same genetic difference also leads to drier earwax.)

A friend of mine in undergrad of East Asian background told me once that she had never worn deodorant. So this shouldn’t be very surprising.

Today I found a paper, A missense variant of the ABCC11 gene is associated with Axillary Osmidrosis susceptibility and clinical phenotypes in the Chinese Han Population, which explicitly probes the correlation between body odor (“Axillary Osmidrosis”) and the SNP in question in the Han Chinese population.

The chart below makes the association obvious:

The correlation between carrying the G, ancestral, allele, and body odor is very strong. Though it is imperfect. Going through this literature human smells are clearly a polygenic trait (see The effect of ethnicity on human axillary odorant production). That being said, this case-control study in a Han population shows ABCC11‘s importance in at least East Asian populations (earlier work in Japan showed that those with body odor tended to have wet earwax and carry the G allele as well).

In regards to the genotype proportions the authors observe:

The excessive heterozygosity observed in AO individuals is probably due to the effect of selection, particularly nonrandom mating against AO phenotype.

This doesn’t make sense to me. Wouldn’t people who have body odor tend to pair up in a society where they are a minority? The authors note that the excess of heterozygotes was observed in earlier studies too.

If you dig into the frequencies it seems that the derived mutation is absent among populations in Africa without recent Eurasian back-migration. I looked it up, and it’s segregating in ancient Eurasian samples, with Ust Ishim being a heterozygote. It is curious that in no population has the derived frequency swept to fixation, nor has the ancestral variant fixed in other groups (such as in Europe).

I strongly doubt that there is any selection on this locus due to earwax or body odor. It is a pleiotropic locus, there are other effects from the mutation. One of those other effects is probably the target of any selection. And in regards to selection, it seems likely that that would be a balancing sort since neither the ancestral nor the derived variant are fixed in most populations.