Theses Doctoral

Encoding of Odorants by Olfactory Sensory Neurons

Peterlin, Zita

The olfactory system relies on a combinatorial code where a given odorant receptor (OR) detects multiple odorants, and a given odorant is detected by multiple ORs (Malnic, Hirono et al. 1999). Prior attempts to decipher the code have emphasized linking genetic sequence to functional profile, but this approach has led to deorphanization of only ~85 out of ~1200 ORs in mouse (Zhang and Firestein 2007). With such a narrow window onto the combinatorial code, even the deorphaned ORs effectively remain stranded.
High throughput calcium imaging of olfactory sensory neurons (OSNs) can provide the missing context. With this method, it is possible to survey the population response patterns while still preserving information on the individual receptive fields that contribute to the ensemble. I have used this technique to gain a more comprehensive view of the combinatorial code.
Octanal is an odorant capable of recruiting many OSNs, but how functionally diverse are they? Screening with a panel of odorants made the subdivisions among this large suite of OSNs clear, revealing that nearly half uniquely parse the test panel. Expanding upon this, I show that such rare response patterns can be used like a fingerprint to assess, via physiology, that an OSN expresses a given OR.
Population level analysis of the combinatorial code led me to two driving concepts. One is that the OR repertoire, despite its diversity, is nevertheless markedly constrained in its ability to discriminate certain series of odorants. For example, an OSN cannot respond to an alcohol and acid without also responding to an aldehyde. Exploring potential mechanisms, I used designer aldehydes that were trapped in an intermediate polar anchor state. I found that a previously discounted binding mode correlated with the ability of OSNs to selectively respond to aldehydes while excluding alcohols.
The other key finding is that odorants can often adopt high energy conformations when activating OSNs. Initially, this was noted for aromatic odorants during a general screen. To probe the phenomenon in greater detail, I used a series of cyclized compounds that mimic rarely assumed states of the flexible tail of octanal. Comparing the activation strength of each analog to that elicited by unconstrained octanal demonstrated extensive co-recognition. This suggests that the flexibility of octanal contributes to its promiscuity in terms of recruiting a high number of OSNs.
This study led to the realization that rings could often be treated as merely preserving a particular trajectory of a hydrocarbon backbone. Guided by this concept, I developed new panels with odorants that previously would have been considered discrepant. Hedione is an odorant where a ring imparts specialized geometry that greatly impacts perception. Yet at the OR combinatorial code level, I found that the ring was not critical and flexible but related odorants were still effective. I also demonstrated that OSNs readily accept odorants where an aromatic ring has been substituted with specific alkyl fragments. Thus, aromatic rings too, despite their unique electronics, are sometimes better viewed from a strictly architectural perspective.
Using population analysis to identify what the ORs deem the important features of odorants can clarify the trends that sculpt the combinatorial code. This knowledge can help us consolidate seemingly broad receptive fields to better understand what information the OR repertoire extracts from the external chemical environment.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Biological Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Firestein, Stuart J.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 15, 2014