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J Exp Biol. 2009 Jul;212(Pt 13):1973-9. doi: 10.1242/jeb.023036.

Smelling the difference: controversial ideas in insect olfaction.

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  • 1Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior, The Rockefeller University, New York, NY 10065, USA.


In animals, the sense of smell is often used as a powerful way to attract potential mates, to find food and to explore the environment. Different animals evolved different systems to detect volatile odorants, tuned to the specific needs of each species. Vertebrates and nematodes have been used extensively as models to study the mechanisms of olfaction: the molecular players are olfactory receptors (ORs) expressed in olfactory sensory neurons (OSNs) where they bind to volatile chemicals, acting as the first relay of olfactory processing. These receptors belong to the G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR) superfamily; binding to odorants induces the production and amplification of second messengers, which lead to the depolarization of the neuron. The anatomical features of the insect olfactory circuit are similar to those of mammals, and until recently it was thought that this similarity extended to the ORs, which were originally annotated as GPCRs. Surprisingly, recent evidence shows that insect ORs can act like ligand-gated ion channels, either completely or partially bypassing the amplification steps connected to the activation of G proteins. Although the involvement of G proteins in insect olfactory signal transduction is still under question, this new discovery raises fascinating new questions regarding the function of the sense of smell in insects, its evolution and potential benefits compared with its mammalian counterpart.

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