Sensing odorants and pheromones with chemosensory receptors

Annu Rev Physiol. 2009:71:307-32. doi: 10.1146/annurev.physiol.010908.163209.


Olfaction is a critical sensory modality that allows living things to acquire chemical information from the external world. The olfactory system processes two major classes of stimuli: (a) general odorants, small molecules derived from food or the environment that signal the presence of food, fire, or predators, and (b) pheromones, molecules released from individuals of the same species that convey social or sexual cues. Chemosensory receptors are broadly classified, by the ligands that activate them, into odorant or pheromone receptors. Peripheral sensory neurons expressing either odorant or pheromone receptors send signals to separate odor- and pheromone-processing centers in the brain to elicit distinct behavioral and neuroendocrinological outputs. General odorants activate receptors in a combinatorial fashion, whereas pheromones activate narrowly tuned receptors that activate sexually dimorphic neural circuits in the brain. We review recent progress on chemosensory receptor structure, function, and circuitry in vertebrates and invertebrates from the point of view of the molecular biology and physiology of these sensory systems.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Chemoreceptor Cells / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Insecta
  • Mice
  • Odorants*
  • Olfactory Pathways / physiology
  • Pheromones*
  • Receptors, Odorant / physiology
  • Signal Transduction / physiology


  • Pheromones
  • Receptors, Odorant