Scientists Discover An Ancient Odor-Detecting Mechanism in Insects

Jan 08, 2009
Scientists have found that ionotropic glutamate receptors (green) and odorant receptors (magenta) exist in specific patterns in a fly's antenna. Credit: Cell

(PhysOrg.com) -- In 1913 Theodore Roosevelt added cartographer to his resume when he and his crew ventured up an unspeakably dangerous and uncharted tributary named the River of Doubt. Now, on a charting expedition of their own, Rockefeller University scientists have completed a journey that has also defied expectation. In work to be published in the January 9 issue of Cell, the team reports the discovery of a new family of receptors in the fly nose, a finding that not only fills in a missing piece in the organizational logic of the insect olfactory system but also unearths one of the most ancient mechanisms that organisms have evolved to smell.

The work, led by Leslie B. Vosshall, head of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior, revamps traditional ideas regarding the roles of ionotropic glutamate receptors, proteins that reside deep in the brain at the synapses. There, they grab glutamate molecules and quickly relay messages from one nerve cell to the next, helping animals learn, move and remember. But Vosshall's group now shows that insects do not relegate these receptors to the depths of the brain. They also put them to use elsewhere: in the nose.

"On the surface it's a completely absurd idea," says Vosshall, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. "We know what these proteins do; they sit at the synapse and mediate fast neuronal communication. So the idea that the fly has massively expanded the number of these receptors and positioned them to interact with small molecules in the air seems very strange. But if you think about it, it makes sense. The process is the same, but rather than grabbing small molecules at the synapse, they're grabbing small molecules from the air."

The project began two years ago, when Vosshall and Richard Benton, then a postdoc in her lab, noticed a group of six ionotropic glutamate receptor genes while sifting through the fly genome. Although this group was recognized 10 years ago, ever since the genome was sequenced, the genes did not have a known function, in part because it was assumed they must be similar to any other ionotropic glutamate receptor deep in the fly brain. But to Vosshall and Benton, who is now at the Center for Integrative Genomics in Lausanne, Switzerland, that didn't matter.

Vosshall and her team wondered whether these receptors could in fact represent the "missing" receptors thought to exist in the fly's "nose" — its two antennae. Each antenna is divided into three types of smell neurons. Scientists have characterized the receptors that detect odors in two of these types but those receptors were mysteriously absent in the third, a swath of territory known as the coeloconic sensilla. "It has been shown that cells in the coeloconic sensilla detect odors," Vosshall says. "It's just that we didn't know how they did it."

The team showed that these receptors, which the Vosshall lab named ionotropic receptors, do in fact explain how cells in coeloconic sensilla detect odors. First, they showed that they are expressed in complex combinatorial patterns at the sensory end of olfactory neurons where they have access to and can scan the outside world for odors. They then showed that when these receptors are expressed in the cells in the coeloconic sensilla, the cells respond to odors. Finally, the researchers showed that when they plucked a receptor — say one that detects an odor that resembles a mix of grass and honey — out of its native cell and genetically embedded it in a different cell, the new cell would now detect that odor.

Although it is still unclear why insects have developed two sets of chemosensory receptors — olfactory receptors and ionotropic receptors — the work raises questions regarding their evolutionary origin. Ten years ago, researchers at New York University revealed that plants, which detect soil nutrients and chemicals in the air, also express glutamate receptors, suggesting that the ancestral origin of glutamate receptors may have been to detect small molecules in the air, rather than small molecules in the brain.

"In a way, these receptors were very well hidden because everyone assumed that they were extra glutamate receptors that were unlikely to be of interest," explains Vosshall. "All we did to find them was searched for a gene family of unknown function — and left our preconceived notions aside."

Provided by Rockefeller University

Explore further: Dwindling wind may tip predator-prey balance

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Oculus unveils new prototype VR headset

17 hours ago

Oculus has unveiled a new prototype of its virtual reality headset. However, the VR company still isn't ready to release a consumer edition.

Wireless sensor transmits tumor pressure

23 hours ago

The interstitial pressure inside a tumor is often remarkably high compared to normal tissues and is thought to impede the delivery of chemotherapeutic agents as well as decrease the effectiveness of radiation ...

Final pieces to the circadian clock puzzle found

Sep 14, 2014

Researchers at the UNC School of Medicine have discovered how two genes – Period and Cryptochrome – keep the circadian clocks in all human cells in time and in proper rhythm with the 24-hour day, as well ...

Recommended for you

Battling superbugs with gene-editing system

13 hours ago

In recent years, new strains of bacteria have emerged that resist even the most powerful antibiotics. Each year, these superbugs, including drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis and staphylococcus, infect ...

Dwindling wind may tip predator-prey balance

Sep 19, 2014

Bent and tossed by the wind, a field of soybean plants presents a challenge for an Asian lady beetle on the hunt for aphids. But what if the air—and the soybeans—were still?

Environmental pollutants make worms susceptible to cold

Sep 19, 2014

Some pollutants are more harmful in a cold climate than in a hot, because they affect the temperature sensitivity of certain organisms. Now researchers from Danish universities have demonstrated how this ...

Research helps steer mites from bees

Sep 19, 2014

A Simon Fraser University chemistry professor has found a way to sway mites from their damaging effects on bees that care and feed the all-important queen bee.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

docknowledge
not rated yet Jan 08, 2009
"Theodore Roosevelt"? This is utterly inappropriate and trivial speculation on the part of the writer. And nothing physorg editors should allow in an article. Edit the article, editors, that's your job.