Ultrasensitive pheromone detection by mammalian vomeronasal neurons

Nature. 2000 Jun 15;405(6788):792-6. doi: 10.1038/35015572.


The vomeronasal organ (VNO) is a chemoreceptive organ that is thought to transduce pheromones into electrical responses that regulate sexual, hormonal and reproductive function in mammals. The characteristics of pheromone signal detection by vomeronasal neurons remain unclear. Here we use a mouse VNO slice preparation to show that six putative pheromones evoke excitatory responses in single vomeronasal neurons, leading to action potential generation and elevated calcium entry. The detection threshold for some of these chemicals is remarkably low, near 10(-11) M, placing these neurons among the most sensitive chemodetectors in mammals. Using confocal calcium imaging, we map the epithelial representation of the pheromones to show that each of the ligands activates a unique, nonoverlapping subset of vomeronasal neurons located in apical zones of the epithelium. These neurons show highly selective tuning properties and their tuning curves do not broaden with increasing concentrations of ligand, unlike those of receptor neurons in the main olfactory epithelium. These findings provide a basis for understanding chemical signals that regulate mammalian communication and sexual behaviour.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Calcium / metabolism
  • Electrophysiology
  • Female
  • Ligands
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Microscopy, Confocal
  • Olfactory Receptor Neurons / physiology*
  • Pheromones / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction
  • Vomeronasal Organ / physiology*


  • Ligands
  • Pheromones
  • Calcium