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Insects that smell alike
BY KRISTINE KELLY
In the battle against insect pests, research from Leslie Vosshall’s laboratory suggests that it’s all about the sense of smell. Last October, Vosshall and colleagues demonstrated that one gene, Or83b, is essential for the sense of smell in fruit flies — when the Or83b receptor is missing, flies are unable to respond to most odors.
Now, the lab’s new findings, reported in the February 22 issue of Current Biology, show that Or83b’s function appears to be conserved across very different insect species, including the malaria mosquito, that span 250 million years of evolution.
Fruit flies have 62 odorant receptor proteins, 61 of which are exclusively expressed in specific neurons. But the remaining one, Or83b, is found in almost all olfactory neurons, and serves a general function in detecting odors.
“We looked at Or83b in medflies and corn earworm moths, which are agricultural pests, and the malaria mosquito, which feeds on humans,” says Vosshall. “While they all have very sensitive olfactory systems and very different food preferences, this odorant receptor is highly conserved across all of these different species.”
When Vosshall and her colleagues placed Or83b genes from other species into mutant fruit flies that were missing their own Or83b gene, they found the flies’ sense of smell was restored. Not only had the flies regained their missing sense, but upon further examination, the researchers found that other odorant receptors — which had been non-functional in the mutants — were now working correctly. This says that the mosquito Or83b could interact with fruit fly odorant receptors — a surprising finding given the different smell preferences of these two insects.
“Although mosquitoes and flies have very different opinions about odors, this receptor from mosquito functionally substitutes in the fly,”Vosshall says. “If we could exploit this central function of Or83b-like receptors in insect smell, we might be able to design new insect repellents that would interfere with the function of Or83b to transport odorant receptors. This could in effect make mosquitoes ‘blind’ to humans. That in turn would be another weapon in the arsenal to interrupt vector-borne disease transmission.”


March 18, 2005



 

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