Listening to Earwax


OK, it’s a geneticist’s job to hunt for all sorts of genes. But now that Japanese researchers, led by Norio Niikawa at the Nagasaki University School of Medicine, are zeroing in on the gene that makes earwax, the question is: Who cares?

Well, it turns out earwax says a lot about a person. It comes in two varieties: moist and gloppy, or dry and flaky. (The wet kind is more common in Americans, Europeans, and Africans; the dry type more frequently found in Asians and Native Americans; both types are also found in chimpanzees.) A few years ago, epidemiologist Nicholas Petrakis at the University of California San Francisco found evidence suggesting earwax contains hints of a woman’s risk for contracting breast cancer. Ears and breasts both contain apocrine glands, and women with too much apocrine tissue-and moist earwax-have a tendency to form breast cysts. Finding the gene that orchestrates apocrine development might one day help doctors predict a woman’s risk of developing the disease. In addition, people who have moist earwax tend to have more pungent body odor. Armpits also contain apocrine glands, which secrete oily chemicals that stink-producing bacteria feed on. So the earwax gene might also clue researchers into ways to better fight B.O.

-Gunjan Sinha