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Concept: Olfactory receptor neuron


In mammals, odorants are detected by a large family of receptors that are each expressed in just a small subset of olfactory sensory neurons (OSNs). Here we describe a strain of transgenic mice engineered to express an octanal receptor in almost all OSNs. Remarkably, octanal triggered a striking and involuntary phenotype in these animals, with passive exposure regularly inducing seizures. Octanal exposure invariably resulted in widespread activation of OSNs but interestingly seizures only occurred in 30-40% of trials. We hypothesized that this reflects the need for the olfactory system to filter strong but slowly-changing backgrounds from salient signals. Therefore we used an olfactometer to control octanal delivery and demonstrated suppression of responses whenever this odorant is delivered slowly. By contrast, rapid exposure of the mice to octanal induced seizure in every trial. Our results expose new details of olfactory processing and provide a robust and non-invasive platform for studying epilepsy.

Concepts: Sensory system, Olfactory receptor neuron, Olfaction, Epilepsy, Olfactory receptor, Seizure, Odor, Sensory neuron


The mechanism that specifies olfactory sensory neurons to express only one odorant receptor (OR) from a large repertoire is critical for odor discrimination but poorly understood. Here, we describe the first comprehensive analysis of OR expression regulation in Drosophila. A systematic, RNAi-mediated knock down of most of the predicted transcription factors identified an essential function of acj6, E93, Fer1, onecut, sim, xbp1, and zf30c in the regulation of more than 30 ORs. These regulatory factors are differentially expressed in antennal sensory neuron classes and specifically required for the adult expression of ORs. A systematic analysis reveals not only that combinations of these seven factors are necessary for receptor gene expression but also a prominent role for transcriptional repression in preventing ectopic receptor expression. Such regulation is supported by bioinformatics and OR promoter analyses, which uncovered a common promoter structure with distal repressive and proximal activating regions. Thus, our data provide insight into how combinatorial activation and repression can allow a small number of transcription factors to specify a large repertoire of neuron classes in the olfactory system.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Gene expression, Transcription, Transcription factor, RNA polymerase, Olfactory receptor neuron, Activator


Juxtaglomerular neurons represent one of the largest cellular populations in the mammalian olfactory bulb yet their role for signal processing remains unclear. We used two-photon imaging and electrophysiological recordings to clarify the properties of these cells and their functional organization in the juxtaglomerular space. Juxtaglomerular neurons coded for many perceptual characteristics of the olfactory stimulus such as (1) identity of the odorant, (2) odorant concentration, (3) odorant onset, and (4) offset. The odor-responsive neurons clustered within a narrow area surrounding the glomerulus with the same odorant specificity, with ~80% of responding cells located ≤20 μm from the glomerular border. This stereotypic spatial pattern of activated cells persisted at different odorant concentrations and was found for neurons both activated and inhibited by the odorant. Our data identify a principal glomerulus with a narrow shell of juxtaglomerular neurons as a basic odor coding unit in the glomerular layer and underline the important role of intraglomerular circuitry.

Concepts: Nephron, Action potential, Olfactory bulb, Olfactory receptor neuron, Olfaction, Olfactory system, Potassium, Odor


The aim of this study was to assess whether migration of thallium-201 (Tl) to the olfactory bulb were reduced in patients with olfactory impairments in comparison to healthy volunteers after nasal administration of Tl.

Concepts: Assessment, Olfactory bulb, Olfactory receptor neuron, Olfaction, Olfactory system, Olfactory nerve, Nasal cavity


Typically, ∼0.1% of the total number of olfactory sensory neurons (OSNs) in the main olfactory epithelium express the same odorant receptor (OR) in a singular fashion and their axons coalesce into homotypic glomeruli in the olfactory bulb. Here, we have dramatically increased the total number of OSNs expressing specific cloned OR coding sequences by multimerizing a 21-bp sequence encompassing the predicted homeodomain binding site sequence, TAATGA, known to be essential in OR gene choice. Singular gene choice is maintained in these “MouSensors.” In vivo synaptopHluorin imaging of odor-induced responses by known M71 ligands shows functional glomerular activation in an M71 MouSensor. Moreover, a behavioral avoidance task demonstrates that specific odor detection thresholds are significantly decreased in multiple transgenic lines, expressing mouse or human ORs. We have developed a versatile platform to study gene choice and axon identity, to create biosensors with great translational potential, and to finally decode human olfaction.

Concepts: Nervous system, Action potential, Sensory system, Olfactory receptor neuron, Olfaction, Olfactory system, Odor, Olfactory epithelium


Cancer cells and non-cancer cells differ in their metabolism and they emit distinct volatile compound profiles, allowing to recognise cancer cells by their scent. Insect odorant receptors are excellent chemosensors with high sensitivity and a broad receptive range unmatched by current gas sensors. We thus investigated the potential of utilising the fruit fly’s olfactory system to detect cancer cells. Using in vivo calcium imaging, we recorded an array of olfactory receptor neurons on the fruit fly’s antenna. We performed multidimensional analysis of antenna responses, finding that cell volatiles from different cell types lead to characteristic response vectors. The distances between these response vectors are conserved across flies and can be used to discriminate healthy mammary epithelial cells from different types of breast cancer cells. This may expand the repertoire of clinical diagnostics, and it is the first step towards electronic noses equipped with biological sensors, integrating artificial and biological olfaction.

Concepts: Signal transduction, Olfactory receptor neuron, Olfaction, Olfactory system, Olfactory receptor, Antenna, Linda B. Buck, Richard Axel


We investigated the sensitivity of single olfactory receptor cells to 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), a compound known for causing cork taint in wines. Such off-flavors have been thought to originate from unpleasant odor qualities evoked by contaminants. However, we here show that TCA attenuates olfactory transduction by suppressing cyclic nucleotide-gated channels, without evoking odorant responses. Surprisingly, suppression was observed even at extremely low (i.e., attomolar) TCA concentrations. The high sensitivity to TCA was associated with temporal integration of the suppression effect. We confirmed that potent suppression by TCA and similar compounds was correlated with their lipophilicity, as quantified by the partition coefficient at octanol/water boundary (pH 7.4), suggesting that channel suppression is mediated by a partitioning of TCA into the lipid bilayer of plasma membranes. The rank order of suppression matched human recognition of off-flavors: TCA equivalent to 2,4,6-tribromoanisole, which is much greater than 2,4,6-trichlorophenol. Furthermore, TCA was detected in a wide variety of foods and beverages surveyed for odor losses. Our findings demonstrate a potential molecular mechanism for the reduction of flavor.

Concepts: Signal transduction, Cell membrane, Olfactory receptor neuron, Olfaction, Chemical compound, Olfactory receptor, Odor, Aroma compound


The sophisticated organization of eusocial insect societies is largely based on the regulation of complex behaviors by hydrocarbon pheromones present on the cuticle. We used electrophysiology to investigate the detection of cuticular hydrocarbons (CHCs) by female-specific olfactory sensilla basiconica on the antenna of Camponotus floridanus ants through the utilization of one of the largest family of odorant receptors characterized so far in insects. These sensilla, each of which contains multiple olfactory receptor neurons, are differentially sensitive to CHCs and allow them to be classified into three broad groups that collectively detect every hydrocarbon tested, including queen and worker-enriched CHCs. This broad-spectrum sensitivity is conserved in a related species, Camponotus laevigatus, allowing these ants to detect CHCs from both nestmates and non-nestmates. Behavioral assays demonstrate that these ants are excellent at discriminating CHCs detected by the antenna, including enantiomers of a candidate queen pheromone that regulates the reproductive division of labor.

Concepts: Signal transduction, Insect, Arthropod, Olfactory receptor neuron, Olfactory receptor, Ant, Hymenoptera, Termite


Flies, like all animals, need to find suitable and safe food. Because the principal food source for Drosophila melanogaster is yeast growing on fermenting fruit, flies need to distinguish fruit with safe yeast from yeast covered with toxic microbes. We identify a functionally segregated olfactory circuit in flies that is activated exclusively by geosmin. This microbial odorant constitutes an ecologically relevant stimulus that alerts flies to the presence of harmful microbes. Geosmin activates only a single class of sensory neurons expressing the olfactory receptor Or56a. These neurons target the DA2 glomerulus and connect to projection neurons that respond exclusively to geosmin. Activation of DA2 is sufficient and necessary for aversion, overrides input from other olfactory pathways, and inhibits positive chemotaxis, oviposition, and feeding. The geosmin detection system is a conserved feature in the genus Drosophila that provides flies with a sensitive, specific means of identifying unsuitable feeding and breeding sites. PAPERFLICK:

Concepts: Bacteria, Organism, Olfactory receptor neuron, Olfactory system, Olfactory receptor, Microorganism, Drosophila melanogaster, Drosophila


The vibrational theory of olfaction assumes that electron transfer occurs across odorants at the active sites of odorant receptors (ORs), serving as a sensitive measure of odorant vibrational frequencies, ultimately leading to olfactory perception. A previous study reported that human subjects differentiated hydrogen/deuterium isotopomers (isomers with isotopic atoms) of the musk compound cyclopentadecanone as evidence supporting the theory. Here, we find no evidence for such differentiation at the molecular level. In fact, we find that the human musk-recognizing receptor, OR5AN1, identified using a heterologous OR expression system and robustly responding to cyclopentadecanone and muscone, fails to distinguish isotopomers of these compounds in vitro. Furthermore, the mouse (methylthio)methanethiol-recognizing receptor, MOR244-3, as well as other selected human and mouse ORs, responded similarly to normal, deuterated, and (13)C isotopomers of their respective ligands, paralleling our results with the musk receptor OR5AN1. These findings suggest that the proposed vibration theory does not apply to the human musk receptor OR5AN1, mouse thiol receptor MOR244-3, or other ORs examined. Also, contrary to the vibration theory predictions, muscone-d30 lacks the 1,380- to 1,550-cm(-1) IR bands claimed to be essential for musk odor. Furthermore, our theoretical analysis shows that the proposed electron transfer mechanism of the vibrational frequencies of odorants could be easily suppressed by quantum effects of nonodorant molecular vibrational modes. These and other concerns about electron transfer at ORs, together with our extensive experimental data, argue against the plausibility of the vibration theory.

Concepts: Quantum mechanics, Olfactory receptor neuron, Olfaction, Primate, Olfactory receptor, Odor, Flavor, Aroma compound