Olfactory input dominates reproductive behavior in mice

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Scientists at Harvard University have found strong signs that the pheromones driving reproduction and fertility in mice are detected primarily by the nose -- not by the specialized vomeronasal system that many researchers had suspected of receiving and processing the bodily chemicals that govern mating behavior. The unexpected finding may settle an ongoing scientific debate by providing evidence that key reproductive behaviors in mice arise predominantly, if not exclusively, from olfactory input instead of input from the vomeronasal, visual or auditory senses.

The results, from a team led by Harvard biologist Catherine Dulac, appear on the web site of the journal Cell this week, and will be published in the journal's Nov. 18 issue.

"It's always interesting when there is a surprise finding," says Dulac, professor of molecular and cellular biology in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "Most biology textbooks now say that pheromones affecting reproductive behavior in non-human mammals are detected by the vomeronasal organ, while the nose processes all other odors. Our work suggests quite convincingly that the mouse nose processes both pheromones and other scents, and in fact provides much or all of the chemosensory input that drives mating."

Dulac and her colleagues made pioneering use of a retrograde pseudorabies virus, which is capable of traveling across the synapses separating neurons but does so in a direction opposite to that in which nerve impulses ordinarily travel. By injecting fluorescently marked virus into a mating center in the mouse hypothalamus -- a collection of neurons that produce luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone (LHRH), which manages the development and function of mammalian gonads -- the scientists could trace backward to find the sensory receptors that first detect pheromones, species- and gender-specific chemical cues that drive anima

Contact: Steve Bradt
Harvard University

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