Molecular Genetics and Physiology of Olfaction
Molecular recognition underlies all biological processes. A fundamental question in biology is how systems, from individual proteins to organisms, recognize molecular structure. The vertebrate olfactory system is a remarkable molecular recognition device. Animals can detect odorous chemicals at extremely low concentrations, and can discriminate among an enormous number of structurally diverse molecules. The long-term goal of our work is to understand the genetic and cellular mechanisms used by the nervous system to encode molecular information.
Olfactory stimuli are detected by an array of sensory neurons in the nasal cavity, each of which expresses a single odorant receptor gene. Neurons expressing the same receptor make specific connections to discrete structures (called glomeruli) in the olfactory bulb. In this way, the odorant receptor repertoire (~1000 genes in the mouse) is mapped onto the array of glomeruli in the brain. Our laboratory uses a combination of mouse genetics, functional imaging and electrophysiology to investigate how the receptor map forms.