Mouse noses are diverse. Image credit: Rama (CC BY-SA 2.0 FR)

Sniffing out the nerves in the nose

A mouse’s sense of smell depends on the nerves present in the nose — which can be changed by the act of smelling.

Smells are simply chemicals in the air that are recognized by nerves in our nose. Each nerve has a receptor that can identify a limited number of chemicals, and the nerve then relays this information to the brain. Animals have hundreds to thousands of different types of these nerves meaning that they can detect a wide array of smells.

Smell receptors are proteins, and the genes that encode these proteins can be very different in two unrelated people. This could partly explain, for example, why some people find certain odors intense and unpleasant while others do not. However, having different genes for smell receptors does not by itself completely explain why some people are more sensitive than others to particular smells. The amounts of each nerve type in the nose might also differ between people and have an effect, but to date it has not been possible to accurately count them all.

Ximena Ibarra-Soria and co-workers have now devised a new method to essentially count the number of each nerve type in the noses of mice from different breeds. The method makes use of a technique called RNA-sequencing, which can reveal which genes are active at any one time, and thus show how many nerves are producing each type of smell receptor. Ibarra-Soria and colleagues learned that different breeds of mice had remarkably different compositions of nerves in their noses. Further analysis revealed that this was due to changes to the DNA code near to the genes that encode the smell receptor.

Next, Ibarra-Soria and colleagues sought to find out how the amount of each nerve type is controlled by giving mice water with different smells for weeks and looking how this affected their noses. These experiments revealed that a small number of the nerve types became more or less common after exposure to a smell. The altered nerves were directly involved in recognizing the smells, proving that the very act of smelling can change the make-up of nerves in a mouse’s nose.

These results confirm that the diversity in the nose of each individual is not only dictated by the types of receptors found in there, but also by the number of each nerve type. The next challenge is to understand better how these differences change the way people perceive smells.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: “Variation in olfactory neuron repertoires is genetically controlled and environmentally modulated” (April 25, 2017).
eLife is an open-access journal that publishes outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.
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