Insects and other arthropods transmit devastating human diseases, and these vectors use chemical senses to target humans. Understanding how these animals detect, respond, and adapt to volatile odorants may lead to novel ways to disrupt host localization or mate recognition in these pests. The past decade has led to remarkable progress in understanding odorant detection in arthropods. Insects use odorant-gated ion channels, first discovered in Drosophila melanogaster, to detect volatile chemicals. In flies, 60 “tuning” receptor subunits combine with a common subunit, Orco (odorant receptor coreceptor) to form ligand-gated ion channels. The mechanisms underlying odorant receptor desensitization in insects are largely unknown. Recent work reveals that dephosphorylation of serine 289 on the shared Orco subunit is responsible for slow, odor-induced receptor desensitization. Dephosphorylation has no effect on the localization of the receptor protein, and activation of the olfactory neurons in the absence of odor is sufficient to induce dephosphorylation and desensitization. These findings reveal a major component of receptor modulation in this important group of disease vectors, and implicate a second messenger feedback mechanism in this process.
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