Abstract: Series 104, Lecture 7

The Harvey Lectures Series 104 (2008—2009)

previous lecture

Lecture #7: Thursday, May 21, 2009 — Time and Location

Deciphering Smell: From Body Odor to Insect Repellents

Leslie B Vosshall, PhD

Leslie B Vosshall, PhD

Chemers Family Associate Professor
Head, Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior
Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Howard Hughes Medical Institute, The Rockefeller University

New York, New York

Dr Vosshall's Website

Olfactory cues communicate information about the external world. The chemical signatures of dominance status, estrus, food, and fire can all be accurately detected by the olfactory system and translated into appropriate behaviors. While the neural circuitry of smell perception in insects and vertebrates is organized along similar principles, the molecular odorant receptors of insects are radically different. Rather than coupling odor binding to G protein-signaling, insect odorant receptors appear to be a new class of ion channels that is activated directly by odors. This family of ionotropic receptors accomplishes the amazing task of recognizing food odors, pheromones, and also carbon dioxide. The fact that these proteins are specific to insects suggests that small molecule inhibitors of these receptors have the potential to be safer and more effective insect repellents than DEET. I will discuss recent work that investigates mechanisms of olfactory signal reception and processing in three model organisms, the fruit fly, the mosquito, and humans.