Essays on Science and SocietyEPPENDORF WINNER

Evolution and Revolution in Odor Detection

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Science  16 Oct 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5951, pp. 382-383
DOI: 10.1126/science.1181998

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Summary

Molecular neuroscientists have a tendency to seek evolutionarily conserved mechanisms underlying the construction and function of animal brains. This approach unarguably helps to define fundamental principles of neurobiology by integrating insights from diverse model nervous systems. However, while what is true of the brain of a mouse or worm may be relevant to our own, a focus on commonalities overlooks the fact that different animal nervous systems have evolved to operate in distinct ecological contexts. Nowhere is this truer than in the olfactory system, which underlies the detection of myriad volatile chemicals in the environment. Animal olfactory systems display enormous evolutionary capacity, as species acquire and discard olfactory receptor genes, neurons, and behaviors in an everchanging landscape of external chemical stimuli. These modifications often reflect the fact that most relevant odors for a species are themselves derived from evolving organisms such as plant food sources, animal predators, and potential mates.