Background: Odorant receptors (ORs) are thought to act in a combinatorial fashion, in which odor identity is encoded by the activation of a subset of ORs and the olfactory sensory neurons (OSNs) that express them. The extent to which a single OR contributes to chemotaxis behavior is not known. We investigated this question in Drosophila larvae, which represent a powerful genetic system to analyze the contribution of individual OSNs to odor coding.
Results: We identify 25 larval OR genes expressed in 21 OSNs and generate genetic tools that allow us to engineer larvae missing a single OSN or having only a single or a pair of functional OSNs. Ablation of single OSNs disrupts chemotaxis behavior to a small subset of the odors tested. Larvae with only a single functional OSN are able to chemotax robustly, demonstrating that chemotaxis is possible in the absence of the remaining elements of the combinatorial code. We provide behavioral evidence that an OSN not sufficient to support chemotaxis behavior alone can act in a combinatorial fashion to enhance chemotaxis along with a second OSN.
Conclusions: We conclude that there is extensive functional redundancy in the olfactory system, such that a given OSN is necessary and sufficient for the perception of only a subset of odors. This study is the first behavioral demonstration that formation of olfactory percepts involves the combinatorial integration of information transmitted by multiple ORs.