In a finding with profound implications for controlling insect pests that spread disease and cause crop blights, scientists at Yale have identified 16 odor receptor genes in fruit flies. Although researchers had searched for at least 15 years, this is the first time anyone identified those genes in insects. “The reason people have looked so long is that insect olfaction is tremendously important in the real world,” said John R. Carlson, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale, and leader of the study. The finding, reported in the February issue of Neuron, could help scientists develop agents that would disrupt insects’ ability to smell, making it harder for them to mate or target human, animal or plant hosts. Carlson’s laboratory is further exploring its discovery by breeding fruit flies with the odor receptor genes either missing or misexpressed.

Also important, Carlson said, was the method used to search for the genes. Junhyong Kim, Ph.D., assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, developed a computer program that used a search algorithm to scour the Berkeley Drosophila Genome Project for putative odor receptor genes. “It identified a large number of candidate genes that were likely to encode proteins with transmembrane domains,” Carlson said. Previous research had led them to believe odor receptor genes would contain seven transmembrane domains. The algorithm, which can be adapted to identify channels, transporters and other membrane proteins needed for the normal function of a cell, can be used for other projects, Carlson said.