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The processing of olfactory cues in animals

Olfactory researchers in Germany have received the go-ahead for a DFG priority programme that will be coordinated by the University of Constance. Funding will be provided for three years for research projects dealing with animals’ sense of smell and what happens in the brain of animals during this process. Two million euros per year will be available for these projects. This research priority will be an excellent basis for the establishment of scientific networks and dialogue across disciplinary borders.

The aim of the research projects is to gain insights into the mechanisms of olfactory coding and to understand them more clearly. Astonishing contradictions have to be clarified: on the one hand, some animal species have several olfactory organs that function in different ways (for example, mice have at least four olfactory organs in their noses); on the other hand, the basic principles of olfactory processing are believed to be the same in all animal species – from humans to small fruit flies. Therefore, the interdisciplinary cooperation of the researchers that work using different methods on different animals is of great importance.

Research into the fascinating olfactory systems of insects

Prof. Dr. Giovanni Galizia (Photo: University of Constance)
The programme is coordinated by Prof. Dr. Giovanni Galizia, neurobiologist and zoologist at the University of Constance. Galizia’s research group is investigating the olfactory system in insects. Imagine the following scene: the sun is setting, you suddenly hear a buzzing noise and feel something land on your skin; the blood flows immediately: a mosquito is very determined – it bites, and with it, several dozen other mosquitoes do the same. The mosquitoes are guided to their target through their excellent sense of smell. Mosquitoes do not have noses; they have olfactory receptors with which they can recognise different odours. This is only one of many examples of insects with an excellent sense of smell, which is so sophisticated that some species are able to sense scent molecules over a distance of several kilometres. Male silkmoths are able to sense individual pheromone molecules and locate a female silkmoth over several kilometres. Fruit flies are attracted by fruit on the table. Bees also have an excellent sense of smell; it helps them, in the darkness of the beehive, to differentiate between everything of importance to them. The bees can recognise pollen, differentiate ripe from unripe honey and recognise enemies that might enter the beehive. The bees’ sense of smell is also vital for them outside of the beehive. They have to be able to recognise the scent of flowers and produce their own aromatic substances that will then guide other bees to excellent food sources. The insects do not have a nose, but have olfactory sensilla in their antenna, or other extruding body parts, that pick up chemical signals (pheromones).

Optical imaging of brain processes

But what happens in the brain when the insects have to classify odours? Prof. Dr. Giovanni Galizia is hoping to find out more about this. “I am looking into the insects’ brains,” said Galizia explaining his work. He uses optical imaging methods for recording processes in the brain of an animal during the olfactory process. His research group has carried out comprehensive investigations on these processes and has also succeeded in training bees to react to specific odours. “We have reached an important milestone in our research. The priority programme will provide us with the ideal conditions to continue this successful work. We already know a lot about the olfactory language of bees. However, it is still a long way from being something like a “dictionary of scent”. But the researchers hope that at some stage in the future they will be able to link specific nerve cells with specific odours,” said the scientist.

The new DFG priority programme gives the scientists the possibility to deal with the broad spectrum of olfactory research more intensively; the programme can be prolonged by another three years. This gives the researchers excellent possibilities to engage in interdisciplinary cooperation and exchange information across project borders. Geneticists will meet neurobiologists, behavioural scientists will meet geneticists and neurobiologists. The research results gained from research involving mice, fruit flies and humans will be discussed and compared and investigated in parallel. “This leads to a completely new quality of research. We will devise new types of cooperation and may come up with completely new concepts and methods,” said Galizia full of praise for the new project.

DFG priority funding is only given to researchers that fulfil strict quality requirements. The proposed field of research must be new in Germany and in the international context; it must have clear short- and medium-term goals, synergy effects must be clearly visible. Scientists from all over Germany are invited to apply for a DFG priority research grant. An international group of experts will decide on the projects that will be funded. Funding will start in spring 2009.

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/press-release/the-processing-of-olfactory-cues-in-animals