Ionotropic and metabotropic mechanisms in chemoreception: 'chance or design'?

EMBO Rep. 2010 Mar;11(3):173-9. doi: 10.1038/embor.2010.8. Epub 2010 Jan 29.


Chemosensory receptors convert an enormous diversity of chemical signals from the external world into a common language of electrical activity in the brain. Mammals and insects use several families of transmembrane receptor proteins to recognize distinct classes of volatile and non-volatile chemicals that are produced by conspecifics or other environmental sources. A comparison of the signalling mechanisms of mammalian and insect receptors has revealed an unexpected functional distinction: mammals rely almost exclusively on metabotropic ligand-binding receptors, which use second messenger signalling cascades to indirectly activate ion channels, whereas insects use ionotropic receptors, which are gated directly by chemical stimuli, thereby leading to neuronal depolarization. In this review, we consider possible reasons for this dichotomy, taking into account biophysical, cell biological, ecological and evolutionary influences on how information is extracted from chemosensory cues by these animal classes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Drosophila / metabolism
  • Electrochemistry / methods
  • Humans
  • Ion Channel Gating
  • Ion Channels / metabolism*
  • Ions
  • Models, Biological
  • Odorants
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled / metabolism
  • Receptors, Odorant / metabolism
  • Receptors, Odorant / physiology
  • Signal Transduction / physiology
  • Smell / physiology*
  • Taste / physiology*


  • Ion Channels
  • Ions
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled
  • Receptors, Odorant