Our sense of smell exhibits tremendous breadth and specificity, allowing us to identify a toxic chemical or a flower by scent alone. Smells can also have special meaning. Some odorants are innately attractive or aversive, and specialized odorants called pheromones induce stereotyped behaviors or physiological responses in many animals. How does the olfactory system recognize so many different odorant compounds, and what makes some odorants special, with innate valence or meaning? My lab tries to answer these questions by combining mouse genetics with molecular and genomic analysis of olfactory neurons in vivo.
Our genomes encode hundreds of olfactory receptors, allowing us to sense many diverse odorants. Critically, each olfactory sensory neuron expresses only one of these receptors. This singular expression provides specificity, since only the presence of the specific odorants recognized by the single chosen receptor will lead to activation of a neuron. Working in mice, we aim to decipher the gene regulatory mechanism that control singular expression. In particular, we are trying to identify the mechanisms that activate transcription of a single receptor gene while keeping the other receptor genes transcriptionally silent, and to decipher the connection between receptor choice and the recognition of odorants or pheromones with innate meaning.