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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2003 Mar 18;100(6):3324-7. Epub 2003 Feb 28.

Human specific loss of olfactory receptor genes.

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Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Inselstrasse 22, Leipzig D-04103, Germany.


Olfactory receptor (OR) genes constitute the basis for the sense of smell and are encoded by the largest mammalian gene superfamily of >1,000 genes. In humans, >60% of these are pseudogenes. In contrast, the mouse OR repertoire, although of roughly equal size, contains only approximately 20% pseudogenes. We asked whether the high fraction of nonfunctional OR genes is specific to humans or is a common feature of all primates. To this end, we have compared the sequences of 50 human OR coding regions, regardless of their functional annotations, to those of their putative orthologs in chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and rhesus macaques. We found that humans have accumulated mutations that disrupt OR coding regions roughly 4-fold faster than any other species sampled. As a consequence, the fraction of OR pseudogenes in humans is almost twice as high as in the non-human primates, suggesting a human-specific process of OR gene disruption, likely due to a reduced chemosensory dependence relative to apes.

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