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When Linda Buck and Richard Axel published their Nobel Prize winning research on the olfactory receptors in 1991, they identified in mice 1,000 G-protein-coupled receptors used for olfaction. Since all types of G-protein receptors currently known are activated through binding of molecules with highly specific conformations, or shape, it is assumed that olfactory receptors operate in a similar fashion.
Further research on human olfaction systems identified 347 olfactory receptors although Only a portion of these potential genes form functional odor receptors. It has shown that there a remnants of genetic code for some 600 other receptors but these are now defunct
The reason for the large number of different odor receptors is to provide a system for detecting as many different odors as possible. Even so, each odor receptor does not correspond to just one odor. Each individual odor receptor is broadly tuned to be activated by a number of similar structures. Like the immune system, this system allows molecules that have never been encountered before to be characterized. Also most odors activate more than one type of odor receptor. This aspect provides for the identification of an almost limitless number of different molecules.
References & Bibliography
- Buck, L. and Axel, R. (1991) A novel multigene family may encode odorant receptors: a molecular basis for odor recognition. Cell, 65, 175–187.
- Malnic, B., Godfrey, P.A., & Buck, L.B. (2004). The human olfactory receptor gene family. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 24;101(8):2584-2589.