The Odor Path

Substances animals taste are usually much more water soluble than those that they smell, and the sensory dendrites of both gustatory and olfactory sensilla are in an aqueous medium. Thus, the problem of getting the stimulus to the receptor has received much more attention in olfactory research. In insects, odor molecules first contact the cuticular surface, and because it is waxy, they easily dissolve. From here they move in two dimensions, and some find their way into the opening of a pore canal. Since the pore canal contains wax, passage through it is probably easy, and passage in pore tubules may be similar. Eventually, however, before it arrives at the receptor surface of a dendrite, the hydrophobic odor molecule will encounter water. Recent work, particularly with the antennae of large moths, has uncovered at least two types of protein in the extracellular spaces of sensilla. One type specifically binds chemicals that are part of the moths' pheromone mixture, and are therefore called pheromone binding proteins (PBP). The other type binds less specifically a variety of nonpheromone molecules (e.g., food odors) and are called general odorant binding proteins (GOBP).

The odorant binding proteins (OBP) act as shuttles and carry odor molecules through the aqueous medium to the surface of the dendrite. In the membrane of the sensory cell are receptors for various odors, depending on the specificity of the cell. Cells that respond to only a single pheromone would be expected to have only one type of receptor molecule. More typically, a cell that is sensitive to food odors has a variety of related receptors covering various stimuli. In either case, the odorant binding protein, now carrying the odor molecule, comes in contact with a receptor. What happens next is now under investigation, and there are two competing hypotheses. The OBP may simply deliver the stimulus, which itself then interacts with the receptor protein; or, the stimulus—OBP complex may be the actual stimulus. That is, the receptor site may be configured as to recognize only the combined stimulus and OBP; either alone will not fit. The latter hypothesis may also explain how these systems can turn on and off so quickly: namely, because moths can follow a discontinuous (patchy) odor trail, making minute adjustments in flight pattern on a millisecond scale. This precise behavior is corroborated by electrophysiological measurements showing that the sensory cells can follow an on-and-off pattern of odor stimulation, also in the millisecond range. It is possible that the OBP-stimulus complex, when first formed, is the effective stimulus for the receptor. During the interaction with the receptor, however, the OBP—stimulus complex changes slightly, becomes inactive, and immediately leaves the receptor. Later, it is broken down by other proteins (enzymes) in the sensillum lumen. Figure 3 summarizes this complex series of events and emphasizes the second hypothesis.

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