The mechanics of instinctive behavior are mysterious. Even something as simple as the question of how a mouse can use its powerful sense of smell to detect and evade predators, including species it has never met before, has been almost totally unknown at the molecular level until now.
David Ferrero and Stephen Liberles, neuroscientists at Harvard Medical School, have discovered a single compound found in high concentrations in the urine of carnivores that triggers an instinctual avoidance response in mice and rats. This is the first time that scientists have identified a chemical tag that would let rodents sense carnivores in general from a safe distance. The authors write that understanding the molecular basis of predator odor recognition by rodents will provide crucial tools to study the neural circuitry associated with innate behavior.
Their findings were published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on June 20, 2011.
The search began in 2006, when Stephen Liberles, now Assistant Professor of Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School, was working as a post-doc in the lab of Linda Buck. Buck was part of the team that won the Nobel Prize for identifying the receptors that allow olfactory neurons to detect odors. While in her lab, Liberles identified a new type of olfactory receptor, the trace amine-associated receptors (TAARs).
Mice have about 1200 kinds of odor receptors, and 14 kinds of TAARs. In comparison, humans who rely more on vision than smell have about 350 odor receptors and five TAARs.
Liberles's initial findings indicated that several of the TAARs detect chemicals found in mouse urine, including a chemical with enriched production by males. He wondered, could TAARs (which appear to have originally evolved from neurotransmitter receptors that mediate behavior and emotion) play a role in the social behavior of rodents? What other kinds of naturally occurring odors might they b
|Contact: David Cameron|
Harvard Medical School