Humans rely chiefly on vision to understand and navigate the world around them. But for many organisms, the world is dominated by their sense of smell. For these animals, everyday activities, like finding food, depend on being able to change behavior based on odor-based cues. To meet the challenges of detecting and discriminating between different odors, animals have many odorant receptors that bind to the odors, which are found on olfactory receptor neurons (ORNs). Each odor activates multiple ORNs, and different odors activate different combinations of ORNs. But it is not clear how activities from different classes of ORN are combined to create the perception of an odor or to guide behavior.
Now, Seung Hye Jung and the Bhandawat Lab have investigated the logic by which odors can alter a fruit fly’s movements. The olfactory system of the fruit fly is organized along similar lines to that of a mammal, but is much simpler. Moreover, many genetic tools are available in fruit flies to allow neuroscientists to activate and inactivate specific neurons and assess the effect this has on behavior.
The results suggest that odor-guided movement in fruit flies has two noteworthy features. Firstly, in the presence of odors, flies alter their walking in unexpectedly large number of ways. Therefore, one needs to consider many different factors, or “motor parameters”, to describe how odors affect a fly’s movement. For instance, instead of just walking faster or slower, a fly can change how long it stops (stop duration), how long it runs (run duration) and how fast it runs (run speed) – all of which will affect overall speed. Secondly, a single class of ORN can strongly affect some parameters (like run duration) without affecting others (like stop duration). These data indicate that the neural circuits involved have a modular organization in which each ORN class affects a subset of motor parameters, and each motor parameter is affected by a subset of ORN classes. These findings were largely unexpected.
Jung et al.’s study focused on attractive odors. Future work will study repulsive odors to investigate if similar results are seen when studying repulsion versus attraction.