Background: The olfactory receptor gene family is one of the largest in the mammalian genome. Previous computational analyses have identified approximately 1,500 mouse olfactory receptors, but experimental evidence confirming olfactory function is available for very few olfactory receptors. We therefore screened a mouse olfactory epithelium cDNA library to obtain olfactory receptor expressed sequence tags, providing evidence of olfactory function for many additional olfactory receptors, as well as identifying gene structure and putative promoter regions.
Results: We identified more than 1,200 odorant receptor cDNAs representing more than 400 genes. Using real-time PCR to confirm expression level differences suggested by our screen, we find that transcript levels in the olfactory epithelium can differ between olfactory receptors by up to 300-fold. Differences for one gene pair are apparently due to both unequal numbers of expressing cells and unequal transcript levels per expressing cell. At least two-thirds of olfactory receptors exhibit multiple transcriptional variants, with alternative isoforms of both 5' and 3' untranslated regions. Some transcripts (5%) utilize splice sites within the coding region, contrary to the stereotyped olfactory receptor gene structure. Most atypical transcripts encode nonfunctional olfactory receptors, but can occasionally increase receptor diversity.
Conclusions: Our cDNA collection confirms olfactory function of over one-third of the intact mouse olfactory receptors. Most of these genes were previously annotated as olfactory receptors based solely on sequence similarity. Our finding that different olfactory receptors have different expression levels is intriguing given the one-neuron, one-gene expression regime of olfactory receptors. We provide 5' untranslated region sequences and candidate promoter regions for more than 300 olfactory receptors, valuable resources for computational regulatory motif searches and for designing olfactory receptor microarrays and other experimental probes.