New method enables scientists to see smells

December 24, 2007

Animals and insects communicate through an invisible world of scents. By exploiting infrared technology, researchers at Rockefeller University just made that world visible. With the ability to see smells, these scientists now show that when fly larvae detect smells with both olfactory organs they find their way toward a scented target more accurately than when they detect them with one.

“Having two eyes allows us to have depth perception and two ears allows us to pinpoint a noise precisely,” says Leslie Vosshall, head of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior. “Sensing odors in stereo is equally important.”

In research to be published in the December 23 online issue of Nature Neuroscience, Vosshall and her colleagues show that odor information is easier to perceive when it is smelled with both olfactory organs. By genetically manipulating flies to express odorant receptors in one olfactory organ or both, they show that the brains of Drosophila melanogaster larvae not only make use of stereo cues to locate odors but also to navigate toward them — a behavior called chemotaxis.

To study this behavior, Vosshall and her colleagues had to figure out which direction the larvae move with respect to the source of the odor. But since odors are invisible, the researchers could neither predict how the flies would move in relation to these scents nor guess whether the odors were concentrated in patches or along a gradient. To complicate matters, odors whisk to and fro at the mercy of the slightest stir, making it impossible to determine their concentrations at particular locations.

“We needed to create an environment in which we knew something about the spatial arrangement of the odors,” says Vosshall. “We needed to see the smells.”

In collaboration with colleagues in Thomas P. Sakmar’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, the researchers used a novel spectroscopic technique that exploited infrared light to create environments where they could see, control and precisely quantify the distribution of these smells.

When Vosshall and her colleagues observed the animals’ behavior, they found that although animals with one functional nose or two were both able to sense odors, only the ones with both olfactory organs working accurately navigated toward the odor source. “A left-right comparison isn’t necessary for flies to smell,” says Vosshall, “but it is necessary for them to do it well.”

Source: Rockefeller University

Explore further: How does DEET work? Study says it confuses insects (Update)

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Natural compound reduces signs of aging in healthy mice

October 27, 2016

Much of human health hinges on how well the body manufactures and uses energy. For reasons that remain unclear, cells' ability to produce energy declines with age, prompting scientists to suspect that the steady loss of efficiency ...

A metabolic switch to turn off obesity

October 27, 2016

You've tried all the diets. No matter: you've still regained the weight you lost, even though you ate well and you exercised regularly! This may be due to a particular enzyme in the brain: the alpha/beta hydrolase domain-6 ...

Scientists develop 'world-first' 3-D mammary gland model

October 27, 2016

A team of researchers from Cardiff University and Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute has succeeded in creating a three-dimensional mammary gland model that will pave the way for a better understanding of the mechanisms ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2.6 / 5 (5) Dec 24, 2007
A smell-o-scope! What a Farnsworth-ian invention that one is! lol!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.