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What is so special about smell? Olfaction as a model system in neurobiology
  1. Ann-Sophie Barwich
  1. Correspondence to Dr Ann-Sophie Barwich, The Center for Science and Society, Presidential Scholars in Society and Neuroscience, Columbia University, 404 Fayerweather Hall, MC 2527, 1180 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10027, USA; ab4221{at}


Neurobiology studies mechanisms of cell signalling. A key question is how cells recognise specific signals. In this context, olfaction has become an important experimental system over the past 25 years. The olfactory system responds to an array of structurally diverse stimuli. The discovery of the olfactory receptors (ORs), recognising these stimuli, established the olfactory pathway as part of a greater group of signalling mechanisms mediated by G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). GPCRs are the largest protein family in the mammalian genome and involved in numerous fundamental physiological processes. The OR family exhibits two characteristics that make them an excellent model system to understand GPCRs: its size and the structural diversity of its members. Research on the OR binding site investigates what amino acid sequences determine the receptor-binding capacity. This promises a better understanding of how the basic genetic makeup of GPCRs relates to their diversification in ligand-binding capacities.

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