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Adv Exp Med Biol. 2012;739:93-106. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4614-1704-0_6.

Odor and pheromone sensing via chemoreceptors.

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Department of Neuroscience, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.


Evolutionally, chemosensation is an ancient but yet enigmatic sense. All organisms ranging from the simplest unicellular form to the most advanced multicellular creature possess the capability to detect chemicals in the surroundings. Conversely, all living things emit some forms of smells, either as communicating signals or as by-products of metabolism. Many species (from worms, insects to mammals) rely on the olfactory systems which express a large number of chemoreceptors to locate food and mates and to avoid danger. Most chemoreceptors expressed in olfactory organs are G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) and can be classified into two major categories: odorant receptors (ORs) and pheromone receptors, which principally detect general odors and pheromones, respectively. In vertebrates, these two types of receptors are often expressed in two distinct apparatuses: The main olfactory epithelium (MOE) and the vomeronasal organ (VNO), respectively. Each olfactory sensory neuron (OSN) in the MOE typically expresses one type of OR from a large repertoire. General odors activate ORs and their host OSNs (ranging from narrowly- to broadly-tuned) in a combinatorial manner and the information is sent to the brain via the main olfactory system leading to perception of smells. In contrast, pheromones stimulate relatively narrowly-tuned receptors and their host VNO neurons and the information is sent to the brain via the accessory olfactory system leading to behavioral and endocrinological changes. Recent studies indicate that the functional separation between these two systems is blurred in some cases and there are more subsystems serving chemosensory roles. This chapter focuses on the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying odor and pheromone sensing in rodents, the best characterized vertebrate models.

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