Pheromone Notes #2
Hughes Medical Institute reports: Pheromone Receptors Need "Escorts"
Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) researches and their colleagues
have discovered that escort molecules are required to usher pheromone receptors
to the surface of sensory neurons where they are needed to translate chemical
In an interesting twist, the researchers found that the escort molecules
belong to a family of proteins, called the major histocompatibility complex (MHC),
which plays an important role in the immune system. The researchers speculate
that in addition to being escort molecules, the MHC proteins might actively modulate
an animal's response to pheromones. Modulation of pheromone activity might aid
in the recognition of other animals.
This association opens all
sorts of possibilities for the mechanism of pheromone detection.
The studies in mice add a novel and unexpected layer of complexity
to the process of pheromone detection, the researchers wrote in an article
published in the March 7, 2003, issue of the journal Cell. The article was published
online on March 4, 2003. The findings also suggest that, similarly, escort molecules,
although of a different kind, may be important in smell and taste receptors.
investigators Catherine Dulac at Harvard University and Kirsten Fischer Lindahl
at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center led the research teams
that collaborated on the studies.
The pheromone communication system, which
is found in a wide range of mammals, involves detection of chemical odorants released
by animals. Detection of pheromones takes place in a specialized structure, called
the vomeronasal organ (VNO). Although the VNO resides in the nasal cavity, the
pheromone sensory system is distinct from the sense of smell, as are the chemical
receptors involved. In animals possessing a pheromone sensory system including
mice, dogs, cats and elephants the system governs a range of genetically
preprogrammed mating, social ranking, maternal, and territorial defense behaviors.
According to Dulac, untangling the complexity of the pheromone system has
been a daunting task for researchers. For example, if you compare the number
of receptors, which ranges between two hundred and four hundred, and the number
of behaviors they trigger, which ranges up to a dozen, there is a huge discrepancy,
she said. So, you can either postulate that there are hundreds of behaviors
not yet described, or more likely a given behavior involves the activation of
To begin sorting out the functions of the multitude
of pheromone receptors, Dulac and her colleagues decided to study a subpopulation
of sensory neurons in the VNO. The researchers knew they could distinguish neurons
that expressed one family of receptors, called V2R, from another family, called
V1R, so they used a technique called subtractive differential screening
of single cell cDNA libraries to compare the genes that are switched on
in neurons bearing the two different types of pheromone receptor.
comparisons as well as sequencing of the discovered genes and searches
of gene databases yielded evidence that two families of MHC genes called
M1 and M10 were preferentially activated in these neurons, said Dulac. The finding
was surprising because MHC proteins commonly function on the surface of immune
cells to present foreign proteins to the immune system to trigger destruction
of invading pathogens. The M10 proteins found in the VNO were different in structure
and obviously in function from other such molecules.
Dulac's and Fischer
Lindahl's research teams set out to explore the structure and function of the
M10 type of MHC proteins that the genes produced. Their studies revealed that
the MHC genes were exclusively expressed in the VNO and in no other tissue. And
within the VNO, they were only expressed in V2R-positive VNO neurons. The researchers
observed that each type of V2R receptor apparently had a specific type of M10
protein associated with it.
So, we found that there is a population
of neurons in which each neuron expresses only one type of pheromone receptor
gene, said Dulac. We also were able to show that these individual
neurons express only one type of M10 gene. This told us there was some type of
logic in that association.
Additional studies showed that the M10
gene was activated only after birth, which suggested that M10 only functions in
pheromone sensing in the adult animal. The researchers showed that the M10 proteins,
like the pheromone receptor proteins, were localized to the tips of neurons, called
dendrites, where chemical reception takes place.
Their studies showed that
the M10 protein, as well as an accessory molecule, beta2-microglobulin,
that accompanies such M10 proteins, directly interacted with the pheromone receptor
molecule. Finally, they found that the M10 protein and its accessory molecule
were necessary for the pheromone receptor to reach the surface of the neuron.
The researchers also explored the effects of knocking out the key M10 accessory
molecule, beta2-microglobulin, in mice. They found that the beta2-microglobulin-knockout
male mice lacked V2R receptors in their VNOs and also failed to exhibit the normal
aggressive behavior toward other males.
According to Dulac, the scientists'
findings show that M10 plays a crucial escort role for pheromone receptors, but
it might well have a modulatory role. The fact that the receptor needs M10
to go to the surface, doesn't prove it's the exclusive role of the protein,
she said. We do know that each time researchers have described an association
between a particular receptor and another molecule at the cell surface, it has
always been the case that the specificity of the original receptor is being modified.
So, we have found new molecular players, if you will, in the game of pheromone
Dulac said that the newly discovered MHC molecule involvement
could have important implications for understanding the pheromone system. This
association opens all sorts of possibilities for the mechanism of pheromone detection,
because we know the animal can modulate its behavior according to the sex of another
animal, its genetic background and the elements that make up the identity of an
The discovery of escort molecules in the pheromone system
could have implications for understanding the molecular machinery involved in
smell and taste, Dulac said. Researchers knew that in cell cultures, olfactory
and taste receptors seemed to require additional molecules to reach the surfaces
of cells. That observation hints at the need for still-undiscovered escort molecules
for those receptors, as well as for the V1R-expressing class of pheromone receptors,
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