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Genome Res. 2010 Jan;20(1):1-9. doi: 10.1101/gr.099416.109. Epub 2009 Dec 1.

Ecological adaptation determines functional mammalian olfactory subgenomes.

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  • 1UCD School of Biology and Environmental Science and UCD Conway Institute of Biomolecular and Biomedical Research, University College Dublin, Belfield Dublin 4, Ireland.


The ability to smell is governed by the largest gene family in mammalian genomes, the olfactory receptor (OR) genes. Although these genes are well annotated in the finished human and mouse genomes, we still do not understand which receptors bind specific odorants or how they fully function. Previous comparative studies have been taxonomically limited and mostly focused on the percentage of OR pseudogenes within species. No study has investigated the adaptive changes of functional OR gene families across phylogenetically and ecologically diverse mammals. To determine the extent to which OR gene repertoires have been influenced by habitat, sensory specialization, and other ecological traits, to better understand the functional importance of specific OR gene families and thus the odorants they bind, we compared the functional OR gene repertoires from 50 mammalian genomes. We amplified more than 2000 OR genes in aquatic, semi-aquatic, and flying mammals and coupled these data with 48,000 OR genes from mostly terrestrial mammals, extracted from genomic projects. Phylogenomic, Bayesian assignment, and principle component analyses partitioned species by ecotype (aquatic, semi-aquatic, terrestrial, flying) rather than phylogenetic relatedness, and identified OR families important for each habitat. Functional OR gene repertoires were reduced independently in the multiple origins of aquatic mammals and were significantly divergent in bats. We reject recent neutralist views of olfactory subgenome evolution and correlate specific OR gene families with physiological requirements, a preliminary step toward unraveling the relationship between specific odors and respective OR gene families.

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