Distinctive Individual Smells

Science Signaling  29 Apr 2008:
Vol. 1, Issue 17, pp. ec155
DOI: 10.1126/stke.117ec155

Pheromones are critical for social communication in many animals. A lot of information about an animal’s status is represented in the complex pheromone components in urine. In mice, detection of such complex chemical signals by the vomeronasal organ (VNO) plays an important role in triggering endocrine changes and eliciting stereotyped innate behaviors. However, our mechanistic understanding of how VNO neurons encode information about sex and individuals is still far from complete. He et al. developed a system to probe neuronal receptor dynamics using genetically encoded fluorescent sensors. They observed distinct populations of VNO neurons that responded specifically to male and to female urine signals. Mouse strain and individual recognition was determined by combinatorial activation across a population of neurons. Such combinatorial activation was unique, allowing each individual animal to be discriminated and recognized.

J. He, L. Ma, S. Kim, J. Nakai, C. R. Yu, Encoding gender and individual information in the mouse vomeronasal organ. Science 320, 535-538 (2008). [Abstract] [Full Text]