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Fruit fly pheromone receptor first ever discovered linked to specific sexual behavior

DURHAM, N.C. -- For the first time in any animal, Duke University Medical Center researchers have linked a single pheromone receptor in the fruit fly to a specific sexual behavior.

Pheromones are chemical signals exuded by many animals -- including humans -- that serve as stimuli to evoke behavioral responses in other individuals of the same species. Pheromones often attract members of the opposite sex and provide important cues during courtship and mating.

Yet little is known about pheromone receptors, which are the protein switches nestled in cell membranes that trigger responses to pheromones, said Duke Medical Center geneticist Hubert Amrein, Ph.D., senior author of the study.

Now, he and co-author Steven Bray, also of Duke, report that male Drosophila fruit flies lacking one type of taste receptor have difficulty recognizing females. Although the males initiate the courtship ritual, the flies' mating dance stalls when they apparently fail to detect the proper chemical cue from females. The sexually aberrant flies otherwise behaved normally, the researchers report in the Sept. 11, 2003, issue of Neuron.

"Scientists have been chasing pheromone receptors in animals for a long time with little success," Amrein said, noting that although putative receptors have been found, tying those to specific behaviors had remained a major challenge. "Now, we have identified a receptor and a very specific aspect of courtship for which it is required."

The work was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Like mammals, insects display complex mating behaviors, many of which are triggered automatically in response to pheromones or other stimuli, Amrein said. Although the same principles likely underlie the behavior in all animals, he added, flies' simpler nervous system makes them an ideal model for study.

Courtship in Drosophila includes a regular sequence of behaviors, which are critical for mating, Amrein
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Contact: Kendall Morgan
kendall.morgan@duke.edu
919-684-4148
Duke University Medical Center
10-Sep-2003


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