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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptNIH Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
Curr Biol. Author manuscript; available in PMC Jun 13, 2011.
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PMCID: PMC3113458

Odor Coding in the Maxillary Palp of the Malaria Vector Mosquito Anopheles gambiae



Many species of mosquitoes, including the major malaria vector Anopheles gambiae, utilize carbon dioxide (CO2) and 1-octen-3-ol as olfactory cues in host-seeking behaviors that underlie their vectorial capacity. However, the molecular and cellular basis of such olfactory responses remains largely unknown.


Here, we use molecular and physiological approaches coupled with systematic functional analyses to define the complete olfactory sensory map of the An. gambiae maxillary palp, an olfactory appendage that mediates the detection of these compounds. In doing so, we identify three olfactory receptor neurons (ORNs) that are organized in stereotyped triads within the maxillary-palp capitate-peg-sensillum population. One ORN is CO2-responsive and characterized by the coexpression of three receptors that confer CO2 responses, whereas the other ORNs express characteristic odorant receptors (AgORs) that are responsible for their in vivo olfactory responses.


Our results describe a complete and highly concordant map of both the molecular and cellular olfactory components on the maxillary palp of the adult female An. gambiae mosquito. These results also facilitate the understanding of how An. gambiae mosquitoes sense olfactory cues that might be exploited to compromise their ability to transmit malaria.


Because of its role in transmitting malaria, the Afrotropical vector mosquito Anopheles gambiae represents one of the most significant threats to global health. As is the case for other mosquitoes, An. gambiae uses a large and divergent population of olfactory receptor neurons (ORNs) to respond to a myriad set of chemical cues with which it carries out odor-mediated behaviors, such as host seeking, nectar feeding, and oviposition [1-3]. An. gambiae and other mosquitoes have three olfactory appendages, the antenna, the proboscis, and the maxillary palp, and all are populated by ORN-containing porous sensilla [4, 5]. In contrast to the antenna, which contains the largest quantity and variety of olfactory sensilla, the maxillary palp is much less complex, harboring a single morphological type of chemosensory sensillum, the capitate peg [6]. Ultrastructural studies have revealed that each capitate-peg sensillum in An. gambiae is invariably innervated by three ORNs [6].

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted by all potential vertebrate hosts and serves as a universal attractant to many mosquito species [1, 7]. It has been reported that CO2 stimulation synergizes with host body odor and induces take-off and sustained-flight behaviors in host-seeking anopheline mosquitoes [7-9]. In addition to CO2, 1-octen-3-ol is another small molecule that emanates from large herbivores as well as from humans [10, 11] and has been identified as a behavioral attractant to tsetse flies [10].

The maxillary palp is the primary CO2-sensitive organ of mosquitoes, and early studies observed a specific loss of response to CO2 in palpectomized female Culex mosquitoes [12]. Moreover, in the yellow-fever vector mosquito, Aedes aegypti, two palpal ORNs in the capitate-peg sensillum were shown to exhibit high sensitivity to both CO2 and 1-octen-3-ol in electrophysiological studies [13, 14]. In contrast, relatively little is known about olfactory responses of the maxillary palp in An. gambiae, which uses a different spectrum of odor cues than does Ae. aegypti in mediating host selection and location [1].

At the molecular level, odor coding in insects is thought to rely on the activation of a large family of highly divergent seven-transmembrane-domain odorant-receptor proteins (ORs) [15, 16]. Insect ORNs typically express one highly conserved and broadly expressed nonconventional DmOR83b-like OR together with one or two conventional odorant-binding ORs [16-19]. In An. gambiae, 79 putative odorant receptor (AgOR) genes have been identified [20], and, thus far, two of them have been demonstrated to encode functional ORs [21]. The anopheline DmOR83b ortholog, AgOR7, is widely expressed in olfactory organs [4].

Here we confirm that An. gambiae palpal ORNs respond to CO2 and 1-octen-3-ol with high sensitivity. We characterize palpal chemosensory receptors and map them to ORN triads that are invariably compartmentalized within each capitate-peg sensillum. The three receptors that were previously classified as gustatory receptors (AgGRs) [20] are coexpressed within the CO2-sensitive ORN, and the two AgORs are coexpressed with AgOR7 in their respective ORNs. We demonstrate that AgOR8 and AgOR28 genes encode functional receptors that confer odorant-induced responses when heterologously expressed in Xenopus oocytes. AgOR8 mediates specific and sensitive responses to 1-octen-3-ol, whereas AgOR28 is tuned to a broad panel of odorants. Lastly, we show that the coexpression of the AgGRs confers CO2 responses in the “empty neuron” in vivo expression system of Drosophila. Taken together, these data elucidate the complete molecular and cellular basis of odor coding in the maxillary palp, which An. gambiae uses for detecting olfactory cues that are crucial in establishing its vectorial capacity.


Responses to CO2 and 1-Octen-3-ol in the Maxillary Palp

The maxillary palp of female An. gambiae is comprised of five segments, all of which are densely covered with flattened scales on their dorsal side (Figures 1A and 1B). Capitate pegs, the single type of chemosensory sensilla in this appendage, are distributed on the ventral side of palpal segments two, three and four [6] (Figures 1A and 1B). Transmission electron microscopic (TEM) studies confirmed that one neuron within An. gambiae capitate pegs had a uniquely lamellate dendritic structure (Figure 1C) that is characteristic of insect CO2-responsive ORNs [6, 22].

Figure 1
The Maxillary Palp in Female An. gambiae Mosquitoes

In order to characterize the olfactory response profile of this appendage, we performed extensive single-sensillum electrophysiological recordings (SSRs) of 45 capitate-peg sensilla at various positions from all three segments of the maxillary palp. Based on response amplitudes and additional sorting criteria, action potentials in most recordings could be resolved into three distinct populations (Figures 2A–2C), indicating the presence of three ORNs (henceforth referred to as the capitate peg (cp) A, B, or C neuron) within each capitate-peg sensillum, which is in accord with previous ultrastructural studies [6]. The cpA neuron is characterized by the largest action potential amplitude, and the cpB and cpC neurons manifest intermediate and the smallest amplitudes, respectively (Figures 2A–2C).

Figure 2
Single-Sensillum Electrophysiological Recordings from Capitate-Peg Sensilla

To test the response profiles of the ORN population in the maxillary palp, we adopted a broad panel of 97 compounds that included specific odorants implicated in mosquito behavior. All analyzed capitate pegs fell into a uniform functional class, each housing three distinct types of ORNs. Of the 97 compounds tested, we found that 36 were able to elicit responses from at least one of the three neurons (Figure 3A).

Figure 3
Response Spectra and Dose-Response Curves of the Three ORNs within the Capitate-Peg Sensillum

The cpA neuron exhibited a spontaneous firing rate of 6.7 ± 63.1 spikes/s and responded strongly to stimulation by CO2 (Figure 2D). We demonstrated the cpA neuron to be a highly sensitive CO2 detector, with a dose-response curve exhibiting a steep slope of 90 spikes every 10log concentration and a detection threshold at around 600 ppm (Figure 3B). In addition to its CO2 detection, this neuron manifested significant excitatory responses to thiazole, 4-methylthiazole, and cyclohexanone (Figures 3A and 3B). We also note that the cpA neuron, as was observed in the case of an individual ORN within the Drosophila antennal basiconic type 1 (ab1) sensillum [23], was unusually activated by the paraffin oil solvent, accounting for much of its response to other odorants (Figures 2E and and3A,3A, arrow). Finally, the cpA neuron was significantly inhibited by seven compounds, with indole and 3-methylindole inducing the strongest inhibition (Figure 3A).

We showed the cpB neuron, displaying a spontaneous firing rate of 3.2 ± 2.5 spikes/s, to be a highly specific and sensitive detector of 1-octen-3-ol, being able to detect 0.1 ppm or 0.85 pg of this odorant in our delivery system (Figures 2F, 2G, 3A, and 3C). The cpB neuron continued to increase its firing rate to 1-octen-3-ol at concentrations between 8.5 × 10 −4 ng and 0.85 ng until the response reached its maximum at 0.85 ng and started to decline at higher concentrations (Figure 3C). Moreover, we found that, at higher concentrations, stimulation with 1-octen-3-ol suppressed the amplitude of the cpB neuron to a level that was not distinguishable from background noise (Figures 2H and 2I), probably because of overstimulation; thus, the response could no longer be reliably quantified at concentrations higher than 2.55 ng. This neuron also responded strongly to 1-hepten-3-ol (Figures 2J and 2K), and, although the dose-response curve of 1-hepten-3-ol has a shape similar to that of 1-octen-3-ol, its response threshold is about 100 times higher (Figure 3C). Much weaker excitatory responses were evoked by 3-octanone and 1-hexen-3-ol and five other tested odorants (Figures 3A and 3C). Furthermore, the cpB neuron was significantly inhibited by 19 tested compounds, among which 4-methylcyclohexanol, 2,4,5-trimethylthiazole, and 2-ethylphenol elicited the strongest inhibitory effects (Figure 3A). Notably, the insect repellent DEET (N,N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide) was one of the compounds that inhibited the firing of the cpB neuron (Figure 3A).

The cpC neuron displayed a low spontaneous frequency of 0.8 ± 0.8 spikes/s and was not significantly inhibited by any of the tested odorants (Figure 3A). In contrast to the other two neurons, the cpC neuron appeared to be a more broadly tuned ORN that was excited by 24 compounds of our odor panel; the strongest excitatory responses were found upon stimulation with 2,4,5-trimethylthiazole, acetophenone, and 2-acetylthiophene (Figures 2L, 2M, 3A, and 3D). A small number of compounds (e.g., 6-methyl-5-hepten-2-one) evoked excitatory responses in both cpB and cpC neurons (Figures 2B, 2C, and and3A3A).

Expression of AgOR8 and AgOR28 Genes in the Maxillary Palp

To search for conventional AgOR genes expressed in the maxillary palp, we initially carried out reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) amplifications with primer pairs targeting all 79 AgOR genes, by using RNA extracted from either hand-dissected male or female whole maxillary palps. In analyses of three independently prepared RNAs from each sex, we consistently found amplification products of only AgOR7 and two conventional AgORs, AgOR8 and AgOR28 (Figure S1 in the Supplemental Data available online). Of these, AgOR8 appears to be palp specific because we have never detected it with similar assays in other mosquito olfactory appendages (M.R. and L.J.Z., unpublished data); AgOR28, however, is also expressed in the proboscis that acts as another accessory olfactory appendage in female An. gambiae [5]. We next investigated the localization of these two AgORs in female An. gambiae mosquitoes through the use of fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH) studies (Figures 4A–4D and Figure S3).

Figure 4
Expression of AgOR and AgGR Genes in the Maxillary Palp

We included antisense AgOR7 probes in our FISH experiments as a marker for ORNs and found AgOR7 labeling was consistently restricted to paired ORN cell bodies in palpal segments two to four (Figures 4A, 4B, and 4D and data not shown). As was the case in previous studies in Drosophila and the silkmoth Bombyx mori [17, 18, 24], the labeling of paired cell bodies strongly supports that two adjoining AgOR7-positive ORNs are present within a single capitate-peg sensillum.

FISH analyses of AgOR8 and AgOR28 indicated that both AgORs were colocalized in palpal ORNs along with AgOR7 (Figures 4A and 4B). Antisense AgOR8 and AgOR28 riboprobes labeled one of the paired AgOR7-positive cell bodies (Figures 4A and 4B), suggesting that these AgORs characteristically map to only one of the two ORNs. This was subsequently confirmed by AgOR8-AgOR28 double-labeling experiments in which colocalization was never observed (Figure 4C). Indeed, it appeared that expressions of AgOR8 and AgOR28 were mutually exclusive of each other in these paired maxillary-palp ORNs (Figure 4C). Consistent with this hypothesis, a mixture of AgOR8 and AgOR28 FISH probes labeled an almost entirely overlapping ORN population with the AgOR7 probe (Figure 4D).

A small fraction of AgOR7-positive ORNs (<10%), however, appeared to be devoid of AgOR8 or AgOR28 signals (Figure 4D, arrowheads). We cannot rule out the possibility that AgOR8 or AgOR28 might not be uniformly expressed across the entire ORN population such that, at a given time point, a subset of ORNs can express either AgOR at a level below the detection threshold of our FISH protocols. Alternatively, the minor fraction of unlabeled ORNs observed here might have expressed another chemosensory receptor gene.

AgOR8 and AgOR28 Both Encode Functional Odorant Receptors

Do AgOR8 and AgOR28 encode functional OR proteins, and, if so, do they respond to maxillary-palp stimuli such as CO2 or 1-octen-3-ol? To address these questions, we conducted two-electrode, voltage-clamp recordings in Xenopus oocytes coinjected with complementary RNAs (cRNAs) encoding AgOR8 or AgOR28, along with AgOR7 and a 15 subunit. Xenopus oocytes respond to odorant stimuli by the release of Ca2+ from internal stores to activate an endogenous Ca2+-activated Cl channel. This system has been successfully employed in previous studies so that functions of insect odorant and pheromone receptors could be characterized [18, 25].

We used a panel of 82 odorants in the Xenopus oocyte system. When AgOR28 was coexpressed in oocytes with AgOR7 and 15, it conferred the strongest responses to 2,4,5-trimethylthiazole, acetophenone, and 2-acetylthiophene (Figures 5A–5C), as well as weaker responses to 16 other odorants (Figure 5B). Although AgOR28 appeared to be a broadly tuned receptor (Figure 5B, inset), it should be noted that three of its five strongest ligands were shown to be acetyl-containing compounds, one of which, acetophenone, elicits a large inward current of over 2000 nA at a 10−4 dilution (Figure 5B). Importantly, these data also demonstrated that odorant-induced increases in inward currents are consistently dose dependent (Figure 5C). The response spectrum of AgOR28 matches nicely that of the cpC neuron in the SSR analyses, indicating that AgOR28 is probably expressed in this ORN to determine its odorant response properties.

Figure 5
Functional Characterization of AgOR8 and AgOR28 Genes in Xenopus Oocytes

In contrast to AgOR28, AgOR8 was more narrowly tuned when expressed in Xenopus oocytes, displaying strong responses to 1-octen-3-ol, 1-hepten-3-ol, 3-octanone, and 1-hexen-3-ol (Figure 5E, inset, and Figure 5F). Among these, 1-octen-3-ol was clearly the most effective ligand, with as low as a 10−8 dilution of this odorant eliciting a significant response (Figures 5D and 5F). Interestingly, despite the fact that both 1-hepten-3-ol and 1-hexen-3-ol are structurally related to 1-octen-3-ol, AgOR8 displayed strikingly lower sensitivity to these two odorants than to 1-octen-3-ol (Figure 5F). Because 1-octen-3-ol occurs as an optically active mixture of enantiomers in human and animal odors [14], we next tested whether AgOR8 responded to (S)-1-octen-3-ol and found that, at all concentrations, currents induced by (S)-1-octen-3-ol were considerably smaller than currents induced by the racemic mixture (Figure 5E and data not shown). These data closely reflect the response profiles of the cpB neuron of the An. gambiae maxillary palp, strongly suggesting that the expression of AgOR8 in this ORN mediates its highly sensitive response to 1-octen-3-ol.

A Third ORN in the Capitate Peg Expresses Mosquito CO2 Receptors

In Drosophila, one GR gene, DmGR21a, has been implicated in CO2 detection [26, 27] and, more recently, it has been shown that DmGR21a together with a second GR, DmGR63a, mediate CO2 sensitivity [28, 29]. Both An. gambiae and Ae. aegypti have three closely related homologs of DmGR21a and DmGR63a (Figure S2) (20, L.B. Kent and H.M. Robertson, personal communication). Although AgGR22 and AgGR24 are likely to be orthologs of DmGR21a and DmGR63a, with 68% and 65% identity, respectively [20], AgGR23 is less conserved, sharing 38% and 26% identity with DmGR21a and DmGR63a, respectively (Figure S2). Although Drosophila species do not have a close homolog of AgGR23, two non-Dipteran species, the silkworm Bombyx mori and the beetle Tribolium castaneum do (Figure S2), suggesting that AgGR23 is likely to be the ortholog of a DmGR that has been lost subsequent to the divergence of these two species.

To investigate whether these putative mosquito CO2 receptors are expressed in the maxillary palp, we carried out FISH experiments with riboprobes for all three AgGR genes (Figures 4E–4H and Figure S4). We reasoned that the CO2-sensitive ORN might not express AgOR7 and thus would not have been labeled by the AgOR7 probe in our previous FISH experiments. Interestingly, in the female maxillary palp, AgGR22, AgGR23, and AgGR24 were all coexpressed in the same AgOR7-negative neurons that are restricted to segments two to four (Figures 4E and 4F and data not shown). This extends recently published data showing the colocalization of DmGR21a and DmGR63a in Drosophila and AgGR22 and AgGR24 in An. gambiae [28]. Furthermore, AgOR7-AgGR22 double-labeling studies also showed that the AgGR22-positive cell always forms a triad with a set of paired AgOR7-positive ORN cell bodies in the maxillary palp (Figure 4G). This is further supported by the observation that AgGR22 and AgOR28 labeled paired cell bodies in the maxillary palp (Figure 4H).

Moreover, we note that the AgGR22-positive ORN has a much larger cell volume than either of the AgOR7-positive ORNs (Figures 4G and 4H). This is in accordance with its more voluminous dendrite that displays considerably more branching than do the other two dendrites within the capitate peg (Figure 1C) [6].

Coexpression of AgGR Genes Confers a CO2 Response

To test whether the AgGR genes are capable of conferring a response to CO2, we expressed them in an in vivo expression system, the empty neuron system [30]. This system is based on a mutant ORN of the Drosophila antenna, ab3A, which lacks its endogenous receptor and does not respond to odors.

When we coexpressed one copy of both AgGR22 and AgGR24 cDNAs in the empty neuron, we did not observe a response to CO2. However, upon increasing the dosage of both transgenes by 2-fold, we observed a marked response to CO2: 27 ± 5.6 spikes/s (standard error of the mean [SEM]; n = 8) over the spontaneous firing rate (Figures 6A and 6B). A steep dependence on gene dosage was also found for the Drosophila orthologs of these genes [29]. Cyclohexanone elicited only 4.7 ± 1.8 spikes/s (SEM; n = 6) (data not shown), suggesting the possibility that response to this odorant (Figures 3A and 3B) depended on AgGR23 or another receptor.

Figure 6
AgGR22, AgGR23, and AgGR24 Confer a Response to CO2

To investigate whether AgGR23 acts in detection of cyclohexanone or CO2, we added an AgGR23 transgene to the empty neuron containing a single copy of AgGR22 and AgGR24. We found that the addition of the AgGR23 transgene had no effect on response to cyclohexanone (3.0 ± 2.7 spikes/s; n = 8) (data not shown). However, addition of AgGR23 increased the CO2 response from − 1.4 ± 1.0 spikes/s (n = 10) to 14 ± 4.2 spikes/s (n = 8) (Figures 6A and 6B). Although the AgGR23 transgene was a myc-tagged genomic clone, and although we have not tested the response of a neuron containing two copies of all three transgenes, the results clearly implicate AgGR23 in the CO2 response.

In summary, we have shown that coexpression of AgGR genes, orthologs of Drosophila CO2 receptors, is sufficient to confer responses to CO2 on CO2-insensitive ORNs. These results, together with our FISH experiments, show that the ORN coexpressing AgGR22, AgGR23, and AgGR24 is the CO2-sensitive ORN (the cpA neuron) identified in our electrophysiological studies.


A Topographic Map of ORNs and Chemosensory Receptors in the Maxillary Palp

We have described a complete and highly concordant map of both the molecular and cellular olfactory components on the maxillary palp of the adult female An. gambiae mosquito, which is the principal Afrotropical vector for malaria. We have used in vivo SSR analyses to identify and physiologically characterize three functional types of ORNs within each capitate-peg sensillum, as well as RT-PCR, FISH, and heterologous expression to fully elucidate the expression patterns and functional characteristics of chemosensory genes throughout the maxillary palp. These studies suggest that a relatively small number of AgOR and AgGR genes are responsible for encoding the entire functional repertoire of chemo-sensory receptors in palpal ORNs.

In Drosophila, a discrete subset of DmOR genes is expressed in the maxillary palp as compared to those found in the antenna [17, 24], and this expression pattern might represent a form of organotypic segregation of sensory inputs across the peripheral olfactory apparatus. In An. gambiae, however, AgOR28 has been detected by RT-PCR amplifications in both the maxillary palp (this study) and the labelum of adult females [5]. This is consistent with observations that acetophenone, one of the strongest ligands for AgOR28, has also been shown to activate a labial sensillum associated with the expression of AgOR28 [5]. Furthermore, 1-octen-3-ol, the most effective ligand for the AgOR8-expressing ORN in the maxillary palp, also elicits responses from a subset of antennal ORNs [3, 31], albeit with much lower sensitivity (threshold at circa 0.25 mg versus 0.85 pg) and response intensity (maximal response at 10 spikes/s versus 165 spikes/s) [31]. These data support a model whereby differential expressions of AgORs across the three olfactory appendages of An. gambiae manifest a range of affinities for overlapping sets of odorant ligands, reflecting a topographic ordering of both high-sensitivity and low-sensitivity receptors. This, in turn, could afford the mosquito a more precise ability to locate and respond to odorant cues across biological space.

Recent anterograde labeling and three-dimensional reconstruction studies of the antennal lobe (AL) from female An. gambiae have revealed convergence of antennal and maxillary-palpal projections onto three dorsal-medial glomeruli [32]. This might represent a fundamental difference from Drosophila, in which sensory inputs of antennal and palpal ORNs fail to converge to common AL glomeruli and remain organotopically distinct [17, 33].

Odor Coding in the An. gambiae Maxillary Palp

We conducted physiological measurements of palpal ORNs against a broad panel of odorants and demonstrated that there were only three types of ORNs (cpA, cpB, and cpC) within the capitate-peg-sensillum repertoire exhibiting partly overlapping but nevertheless distinct response spectra. Of these, two types mediate the highly sensitive detection of two important mosquito kairomones, CO2 and 1-octen-3-ol. Within our panel of tested compounds, the CO2-sensitive cpA neuron was shown to be narrowly tuned to a few odorants. The cpB neuron was also narrowly tuned to a few odorants, including its best ligand 1-octen-3-ol, whereas the cpC neuron appeared to be more broadly tuned.

We successfully used Xenopus oocytes to recapitulate the response profiles of AgOR8 and AgOR28, the two conventional AgORs expressed on the maxillary palp of An. gambiae, and found that the response spectrum measured in oocytes largely corresponded to that of the native ORNs (Figures 3A, 5B, and 5E). These data foster the assignment of AgOR8 and AgOR28 to the cpB and cpC neurons in the maxillary palp, respectively, and are consistent with current paradigms suggesting that insect ORs provide the primary determinant of response spectra of ORNs [18, 34].

AgOR8 and AgOR28 were shown to vary sharply in their breadth of tuning: Although AgOR8 appeared to be a narrowly tuned receptor, AgOR28 responded to a broad panel of odorants, albeit most strongly to only a few ligands, such as 2,4,5-trimethylthiazole and acetophenone. Consistent with previous studies in which some Drosophila ORs show reduced promiscuity when tested with odorants at lower concentrations [34, 35], AgOR28 remained responsive to a smaller subset of odorants at lower concentrations. Furthermore, a substantial fraction of AgOR28’s ligands were demonstrated to be structurally related and fall into two categories: acetyl-containing compounds and thiazole derivatives. Of the two most effective AgOR28 ligands, 2,4,5-trimethylthiazole is a naturally occurring odorant, and acetophenone is a plant volatile that evokes physiological or behavioral responses in many insect species [36]. Because these odorants are not associated with human hosts, these data support a hypothesis that AgOR28 is not directly involved in the host-seeking behaviors of An. gambiae; instead, it might mediate responses to nectar-feeding or oviposition cues. It should, however, be noted that other formal possibilities exist because the odor panel employed here is hardly exhaustive, and AgOR28 might respond with high sensitivity to untested compounds of particular biological significance.

AgOR8 provided the molecular basis for the sensitive palpal response to 1-octen-3-ol. In addition, it was also strongly excited by 1-hepten-3-ol, and considerably weaker responses were elicited from 3-octanone and 1-hexen-3-ol. Furthermore, the native AgOR8-expressing cpB neuron as well as the CO2-sensitive cpA neuron exhibited strikingly prevalent inhibitory responses to a large number of tested odorants; they might use inhibition as a mechanism to suppress noise, as suggested of several Drosophila specialist ORNs [35]. The monounsaturated eight-carbon alcohol 1-octen-3-ol is a well-established odorant cue for mosquitoes [11, 37] and has been documented to synergize the maxillary-palp-based attractiveness of CO2 to several mosquito species [9]. Interestingly, Ae. aegypti also manifests a highly sensitive electrophysiological response to 1-octen-3-ol in its maxillary palp [14] and has a close ortholog of AgOR8 (AaOR8, with 70% identity) that is likewise exclusively expressed in the maxillary palp [38].

The recent data for their Drosophila homologs [28, 29], together with the SSR, FISH, and functional data presented here, strongly support the hypothesis that the palpal cpA neuron coexpressing AgGR22, AgGR23, and AgGR24 mediates CO2 detection in An. gambiae. This ORN reaches its maximal response level near 4000 ppm of CO2 (Figure 3B), about one-tenth the concentration measured in human breath [7]. This concentration corresponds to an apparently important behavioral response threshold because An. gambiae and other mosquitoes do not show increased responses to CO2 levels above 4000 ppm [39]. Fruit flies, however, use this odorant as an avoidance signal [26, 27], and, accordingly, the CO2-sensitive neuron continues to increase its firing rate at CO2 concentrations above 4% [28]. The An. gambiae cpA neuron, similar to the CO2-responsive ORN in Ae. aegypti [13], is a highly sensitive CO2 detector, exhibiting a steep slope of dose-response curves that facilitates detecting small increments in CO2 concentration. However, when compared with the Ae. aegypti neuron, the CO2-sensitive ORN in An. gambiae has a higher detection threshold (around 600 ppm), and the slope of its dose-response curve is not as steep, indicating that CO2-chemosensation is somewhat less acute in this mosquito. This is in agreement with behavioral studies in which this highly anthropophilic mosquito shows less dependency on CO2 in favor of a greater reliance on human-specific cues as a basis for host-seeking behaviors [1, 9].

Like their orthologs in Drosophila, AgGR22 and AgGR24 encode functional receptors and produce a significant response to CO2 when coexpressed in an “empty” olfactory neuron. This result indicates that the two AgGRs are capable of being functionally expressed in a nonnative ORN. Furthermore, as was the case for DmGR21a and DmGR63a [29], the level of response depends on the dosage of AgGR22 and AgGR24 genes. Two copies of both transgenes induced CO2 sensitivity in the ab3A neuron, whereas one copy of both transgenes was insufficient. Interestingly, the ectopic CO2 response in the ab3A neuron is lower than that measured in the An. gambiae cpA neuron. This might be accounted for by lower levels of gene expression achieved with the GAL4-UAS system, by lack of the uniquely lamellate dendritic structure that characterizes the cpA neuron and might facilitate CO2 chemosensation [6, 22], or by lack of additional components. In this regard, we have shown that the third AgGR gene, AgGR23, which is also a close homolog of Drosophila CO2 receptors and is coexpressed with AgGR22 and AgGR24 within the mosquito CO2-sensitive ORN, enhances the response conferred by AgGR22 and AgGR24.

Both FISH and SSR analyses reveal a stereotyped triad of ORNs within the capitate-peg-sensillum population of the maxillary palp: Two AgOR7-positive neurons always pair with a third ORN coexpressing AgGR22, AgGR23, and AgGR24 (Figure 7). One possible biological implication for this stereotyped pairing of the CO2-sensitive ORN and the 1-octen-3-ol-sensitive ORN is that the An. gambiae mosquito might use a complex host odor blend as a crucial host-seeking cue, of which CO2 and 1-octen-3-ol are two components. As a consequence of having the two ORNs responsive to these two components linked together in the same sensilla, the mosquito might ultimately be able to perceive the ratio between these two compounds within the host odor blend with higher fidelity and spatial resolution [40]. This is remarkably similar to several cases of insect pheromone-sensing ORNs, in which neurons responsive to individual components of the pheromone blend are compartmentalized within the same sensillum [18, 41].

Figure 7
Spatial Organization of the Three Neurons within the Capitate-Peg Sensillum

The Maxillary Palp as an Accessory Olfactory Organ

The An. gambiae maxillary palp is an olfactory organ with a relatively simple spatial and functional organization. It has but a single type of chemosensory sensillum, the capitate peg, which is distributed along the three middle segments and invariably innervated by three physiologically and molecularly distinct ORNs. Remarkably, two of these ORNs respond with extreme sensitivity to two crucial signal molecules for mosquitoes, CO2 and 1-octen-3-ol. The stereotyped organization of three ORNs within the capitate-peg sensillum, as defined through our studies, is reminiscent of the Drosophila maxillary palp, in which six functional classes of ORNs are housed in stereotyped pairs within three sensillum types [24, 42]. Although no apparent functional segregation of antennal and palpal ORNs has been observed in Drosophila [23, 42], one type of sensilla, the trichoid sensilla, is exclusively associated with pheromone detection in this insect [43-45]. Our results suggest that the An. gambiae capitate-peg sensillum is another type of functionally specialized olfactory sensillum in insects. The lower sensitivity of AgOR28-positive ORNs in this sensillum might reflect the relative abundance of plant or bacterial odors in the atmosphere and a correspondingly low level of noise from other irrelevant cues. In contrast, host-seeking cues such as CO2 and 1-octen-3-ol are likely to be encountered at much higher noise levels, and the mosquito ORNs responsive to these odorants would be required to detect them at extremely low concentrations that are naturally mixed with a myriad of irrelevant cues. This chemosensory organization might be crucial in enabling the host-seeking An. gambiae mosquito to detect and recognize CO2 and 1-octen-3-ol among a complex odor blend. Perception of CO2 activates mosquitoes and elicits oriented flight behavior, during the course of which they will detect additional cues, including more host-specific odorants, and integrate these signals to drive sustained host-seeking flight [1, 9].

Supplementary Material


We thank J. Bohbot for creating the illustrations of Figures 1B and and7;7; Z. Li, P.L. Russell, L. Sun, F. van Aggelen, A.J. Gidding, and L. Koopman for mosquito rearing and technical assistance; A.L. Goldman, H.P. Yan, and C.E. Carter for valuable advice and help during the development of the FISH technique; M. Birkett, T. Gerke, G. Lepperdinger, D.A. Melton, A.L. George, and H. Hatt for reagents; L.B. Kent and H.M. Robertson for communicating unpublished data; A.M. McAinsh for editorial assistance; and P.X. Xu and members of the Zwiebel, Takken, and Carlson labs for discussions and comments on the manuscript. This work was funded in part by grants from the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through the Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative to L.J.Z. and from the NIH to J.R.C. and L.J.Z.


Note Added in Proof The data referred to throughout as “L.B. Kent and H.M. Robertson, personal communication” are now in press: Kent, L.B., Walden, K.K.O., and Robertson, H.M. (2007). The Gr family of candidate gustatory and olfactory receptors in the yellow fever mosquito Aedes aegypti. Chem. Senses, in press.

Supplemental Data Experimental Procedures and four figures are available at http://www.current-biology.com/cgi/content/full/17/18/bxs/DC1/.


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