Rockefeller researchers provide the first functional evidence for mammalian pheromone receptors

Pheromones - chemical signals that influence social and reproductive behaviors - have been studied since the 1950s, but the molecules in the mammalian nervous system that actually detect pheromones have remained elusive.

Now, a team of researchers, led by The Rockefeller University's Peter Mombaerts, M.D., Ph.D., provides the first functional evidence for molecular receptors for pheromones in mammals. Their findings contribute to our understanding of the functioning of the brain in orchestrating social and reproductive behavior. They also may help explain why sexual reproduction typically occurs only within a species and, ultimately, how species form.

In the Sept. 5 issue of the journal Nature, Mombaerts and colleagues at Rockefeller, University of Maryland School of Medicine and Monell Chemical Senses Center report significantly less aggressive and sexual behavior in laboratory mice who were engineered to lack a particular cluster of genes that previous research from the Rockefeller lab had linked to pheromone detection. They also show that the nerve cells of mutant mice are unable to detect certain pheromones. These pheromone receptors are found in the lining of the animals' vomeronasal organ (VNO), a part of the olfactory system thought to be specialized in the detection of pheromones.

"We know that the VNO is involved with pheromones because if it is surgically removed from the animals, several abnormalities in their mating behavior and aggression patterns arise," says Karina Del Punta, the lead author on this paper and a graduate student at The Rockefeller University.

"We found that deleting the cluster of genes that produce pheromone receptors replicates some aspects of the surgical removal of the VNO in these animals."

The researchers used a sophisticated technique of genetic manipulation called "chromosome engineering technology" to delete a region of 16 genes from the genome of the mouse. The mutant mice develope

Contact: Joseph Bonner
Rockefeller University

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