Detection of volatile odorants by olfactory neurons is thought to result from direct activation of seven-transmembrane odorant receptors by odor molecules. Here, we show that detection of the Drosophila pheromone, 11-cis vaccenyl acetate (cVA), is instead mediated by pheromone-induced conformational shifts in the extracellular pheromone-binding protein, LUSH. We show that LUSH undergoes a pheromone-specific conformational change that triggers the firing of pheromone-sensitive neurons. Amino acid substitutions in LUSH that are predicted to reduce or enhance the conformational shift alter sensitivity to cVA as predicted in vivo. One substitution, LUSH(D118A), produces a dominant-active LUSH protein that stimulates T1 neurons through the neuronal receptor components Or67d and SNMP in the complete absence of pheromone. Structural analysis of LUSH(D118A) reveals that it closely resembles cVA-bound LUSH. Therefore, the pheromone-binding protein is an inactive, extracellular ligand converted by pheromone molecules into an activator of pheromone-sensitive neurons and reveals a distinct paradigm for detection of odorants.