Darwin's tree of life represents the path and estimates the time evolution took to get to the current diversity of life. Now, new findings suggest that this tree, an icon of evolution, may need to be redrawn. In research to be published in the April 13 advance online issue of Nature, researchers at Rockefeller University and the University of Tokyo have joined forces to reveal that insects have adopted a strategy to detect odors that is radically different from those of other organisms -- an unexpected and controversial finding that may dissolve a dominant ideology in the field.
Since 1991, researchers assumed that all vertebrates and invertebrates smell odors by using a complicated biological apparatus much like a Rube Goldberg device. For instance, someone pushing a doorbell would set off a series of elaborate, somewhat wacky, steps that culminate in the rather simple task of opening the door.
In the case of an insect's ability to smell, researchers believed that when molecules wafting in the air travel up the insect's nose, they latch onto a large protein (called a G-protein coupled odorant receptor) on the surface of the cell and set off a chain of similarly elaborate steps to open a molecular gate nearby, signaling the brain that an odor is present.
"It's that way in the nematode, it's that way in mammals, it's that way in every known vertebrate," says study co-author Leslie Vosshall, head of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior at Rockefeller University. "So it's actually unreasonable to think that insects use a different strategy to detect odors. But here, we show that insects have gotten rid of all this stuff in the middle and activate the 'gate' directly."
The gate, a doughnut-shaped protein called an ion channel, provides a safe pathway for ions to flow into a cell. When molecules bind to the odor-sensitive ion channel, the protein changes its shape much like a gate or door changes its conformation as it is opened and closed. Opened, it allows millions of ions to surge into the cell. Closed, it prohibits the activity of the ions from sending a signal to the brain that an odor is present.
At the University of Tokyo, Vosshall's colleague Kazushige Touhara and his lab members puffed molecules onto cells engineered to make insect olfactory receptors. They then measured how long it took for the ion channel to open and recorded their electrical movement as they surged inside the cell via the channel. The rush of electrical activity occurred too fast for a series of steps to be involved, says Vosshall. In addition, poisoning several proteins involved in the G-protein pathway didn't affect the ions or the ion channel, suggesting that G-protein signaling isn't primarily involved in insect smell.
Experiment after experiment, "the most consistent interpretation is that these are ion channels directly gated by odors," says Vosshall. "But the dominant thinking in the field may have reflected an experimental bias that aimed at proving a more elaborate scheme."
The ion channels don't resemble any known ion channel on Earth, says Vosshall. They are composed of two proteins that work in tandem with one another: an olfactory receptor and its coreceptor, Or83b. While the coreceptor is common to every ion channel, the olfactory receptor is unique. Together, they form the olfactory receptor complex. Vosshall and Touhara specifically show that this complex forms nonselective cation channels, meaning that they allow any ion to pass through the gate as long as it has a positive charge.
Touhara and Vosshall developed their ion channel hypothesis in parallel with Vosshall's work on DEET, a widely used chemical in bug spray that jams the receptor complex. This research, which was published in Science last month, also showed that DEET jams other proteins that have nothing to do with smell, including several different types of ion channels that play important roles in the human nervous system.
What these radically different proteins have in common, though, is that they all specifically inhibit the influx of positively charged ions into the cell. "Now the curious result in the DEET paper showing that this insect repellent blocks insect olfactory receptors and unrelated ion channels makes sense," says Vosshall. "I am optimistic that we can come up with blockers specific for this very strange family of insect olfactory ion channels."
Thania Benios | EurekAlert!
Multi-institutional collaboration uncovers how molecular machines assemble
02.12.2016 | Salk Institute
Fertilized egg cells trigger and monitor loss of sperm’s epigenetic memory
02.12.2016 | IMBA - Institut für Molekulare Biotechnologie der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften GmbH
A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.
Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...
In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.
“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...
The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.
The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...
Broadband rotational spectroscopy unravels structural reshaping of isolated molecules in the gas phase to accommodate water
In two recent publications in the Journal of Chemical Physics and in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, researchers around Melanie Schnell from the Max...
The efficiency of power electronic systems is not solely dependent on electrical efficiency but also on weight, for example, in mobile systems. When the weight of relevant components and devices in airplanes, for instance, is reduced, fuel savings can be achieved and correspondingly greenhouse gas emissions decreased. New materials and components based on gallium nitride (GaN) can help to reduce weight and increase the efficiency. With these new materials, power electronic switches can be operated at higher switching frequency, resulting in higher power density and lower material costs.
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE together with partners have investigated how these materials can be used to make power...
16.11.2016 | Event News
01.11.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
02.12.2016 | Medical Engineering
02.12.2016 | Agricultural and Forestry Science
02.12.2016 | Physics and Astronomy