In 1913 Theodore Roosevelt added cartographer to his resume when he and his crew ventured up an unspeakably dangerous and uncharted tributary named the River of Doubt.
Now, on a charting expedition of their own, Rockefeller University scientists have completed a journey that has also defied expectation. In work to be published in the January 9 issue of Cell, the team reports the discovery of a new family of receptors in the fly nose, a finding that not only fills in a missing piece in the organizational logic of the insect olfactory system but also unearths one of the most ancient mechanisms that organisms have evolved to smell.
The work, led by Leslie B. Vosshall, head of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior, revamps traditional ideas regarding the roles of ionotropic glutamate receptors, proteins that reside deep in the brain at the synapses. There, they grab glutamate molecules and quickly relay messages from one nerve cell to the next, helping animals learn, move and remember. But Vosshall's group now shows that insects do not relegate these receptors to the depths of the brain. They also put them to use elsewhere: in the nose.
"On the surface it's a completely absurd idea," says Vosshall, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. "We know what these proteins do; they sit at the synapse and mediate fast neuronal communication. So the idea that the fly has massively expanded the number of these receptors and positioned them to interact with small molecules in the air seems very strange. But if you think about it, it makes sense. The process is the same, but rather than grabbing small molecules at the synapse, they're grabbing small molecules from the air."
The project began two years ago, when Vosshall and Richard Benton, then a postdoc in her lab, noticed a group of six ionotropic glutamate receptor genes while sifting through the fly genome. Although this group was recognized 10 years ago, ever since the genome was sequenced, the genes did not have a known function, in part because it was assumed they must be similar to any other ionotropic glutamate receptor deep in the fly brain. But to Vosshall and Benton, who is now at the Center for Integrative Genomics in Lausanne, Switzerland, that didn't matter.
Vosshall and her team wondered whether these receptors could in fact represent the "missing" receptors thought to exist in the fly's "nose" -- its two antennae. Each antenna is divided into three types of smell neurons. Scientists have characterized the receptors that detect odors in two of these types but those receptors were mysteriously absent in the third, a swath of territory known as the coeloconic sensilla. "It has been shown that cells in the coeloconic sensilla detect odors," Vosshall says. "It's just that we didn't know how they did it."
The team showed that these receptors, which the Vosshall lab named ionotropic receptors, do in fact explain how cells in coeloconic sensilla detect odors. First, they showed that they are expressed in complex combinatorial patterns at the sensory end of olfactory neurons where they have access to and can scan the outside world for odors. They then showed that when these receptors are expressed in the cells in the coeloconic sensilla, the cells respond to odors. Finally, the researchers showed that when they plucked a receptor -- say one that detects an odor that resembles a mix of grass and honey -- out of its native cell and genetically embedded it in a different cell, the new cell would now detect that odor.
Although it is still unclear why insects have developed two sets of chemosensory receptors -- olfactory receptors and ionotropic receptors -- the work raises questions regarding their evolutionary origin. Ten years ago, researchers at New York University revealed that plants, which detect soil nutrients and chemicals in the air, also express glutamate receptors, suggesting that the ancestral origin of glutamate receptors may have been to detect small molecules in the air, rather than small molecules in the brain.
"In a way, these receptors were very well hidden because everyone assumed that they were extra glutamate receptors that were unlikely to be of interest," explains Vosshall. "All we did to find them was searched for a gene family of unknown function -- and left our preconceived notions aside."
This work was funded in part by grants from the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health through the Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative and the National Institutes of Health.
Thania Benios | Newswise Science News
How brains surrender to sleep
23.06.2017 | IMP - Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pathologie GmbH
A new technique isolates neuronal activity during memory consolidation
22.06.2017 | Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)
An international team of scientists has proposed a new multi-disciplinary approach in which an array of new technologies will allow us to map biodiversity and the risks that wildlife is facing at the scale of whole landscapes. The findings are published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. This international research is led by the Kunming Institute of Zoology from China, University of East Anglia, University of Leicester and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.
Using a combination of satellite and ground data, the team proposes that it is now possible to map biodiversity with an accuracy that has not been previously...
Heatwaves in the Arctic, longer periods of vegetation in Europe, severe floods in West Africa – starting in 2021, scientists want to explore the emissions of the greenhouse gas methane with the German-French satellite MERLIN. This is made possible by a new robust laser system of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, which achieves unprecedented measurement accuracy.
Methane is primarily the result of the decomposition of organic matter. The gas has a 25 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, but is not as...
Hydrogen is regarded as the energy source of the future: It is produced with solar power and can be used to generate heat and electricity in fuel cells. Empa researchers have now succeeded in decoding the movement of hydrogen ions in crystals – a key step towards more efficient energy conversion in the hydrogen industry of tomorrow.
As charge carriers, electrons and ions play the leading role in electrochemical energy storage devices and converters such as batteries and fuel cells. Proton...
Scientists from the Excellence Cluster Universe at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich have establised "Cosmowebportal", a unique data centre for cosmological simulations located at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The complete results of a series of large hydrodynamical cosmological simulations are available, with data volumes typically exceeding several hundred terabytes. Scientists worldwide can interactively explore these complex simulations via a web interface and directly access the results.
With current telescopes, scientists can observe our Universe’s galaxies and galaxy clusters and their distribution along an invisible cosmic web. From the...
Temperature measurements possible even on the smallest scale / Molecular ruby for use in material sciences, biology, and medicine
Chemists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in cooperation with researchers of the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM)...
19.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
23.06.2017 | Information Technology