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Researchers Identify Molecule That May Be Key In Pheromone Processing

A research team at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Harvard University has identified a molecule that may be key to the process by which the chemical signals called pheromones are turned into nerve impulses travelling to the brain in rodents. The discovery, which appears in the May 11 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, has two unusual aspects: the molecule is most similar to one that insects use to receive visual signals, and it is produced by a gene that is defective in humans.

"This finding doesn't mean that we all should throw out our expensive perfumes and colognes," says first author Emily Liman, PhD, of the HHMI at MGH. "Instead it suggests that humans probably process pheromones through a different mechanism than most other mammals do." The research team also includes David Corey, PhD, MGH; and Catharine Dulac, PhD, of Harvard University. All team members also are researchers with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Many aspects of animal behavior - particularly those relating to courtship and mating - are known to be controlled by pheromones. Although they are detected via the nose, most pheromones are received by a structure within the nose called the vomeronasal organ (VNO), whereas odors are received by the main olfactory epithelium (MOE). While pheromones are believed to play a role in the timing of women's menstrual cycles, any larger role in human physiology is poorly understood.

Earlier research by Liman, Corey and others has shown that the molecular pathways by which odors are detected in the MOE are not active in the VNO. Similarly, pheromone receptors (molecules on the membrane of a cell that initially receive a chemical signal) recently identified by Dulac are not chemically related to the odor receptors found in the MOE. With this evidence of different mechanisms for the detection of odors and pheromones, interest in discovering how pheromones transmit their signals has been intense. <
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Contact: Susan McGreevey
smcgreevey@partners.org
617-724-2764
Massachusetts General Hospital
4-May-1999


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