Of pheromones and kairomones: what receptors mediate innate emotional responses?

Anat Rec (Hoboken). 2013 Sep;296(9):1346-63. doi: 10.1002/ar.22745. Epub 2013 Jul 31.


Some chemicals elicit innate emotionally laden behavioral responses. Pheromones mediate sexual attraction, parental care or agonistic confrontation, whereas predators' kairomones elicit defensive behaviors in their preys. This essay explores the hypothesis that the detection of these semiochemicals relies on highly specific olfactory and/or vomeronasal receptors. The V1R, V2R, and formyl-peptide vomeronasal receptors bind their ligands in highly specific and sensitive way, thus being good candidates for pheromone- or kairomone-detectors (e.g., secreted and excreted proteins, peptides and lipophilic volatiles). The olfactory epithelium also expresses specific receptors, for example trace amine-associated receptors (TAAR) and guanylyl cyclase receptors (GC-D and other types), some of which bind kairomones and putative pheromones. However, most of the olfactory neurons express canonical olfactory receptors (ORs) that bind many ligands with different affinity, being not suitable for mediating responses to pheromones and kairomones. In this respect, trimethylthiazoline (TMT) is considered a fox-derived kairomone for mice and rats, but it seems to be detected by canonical ORs. Therefore, we have reassessed the kairomonal nature of TMT by analyzing the behavioral responses of outbred (CD1) and inbred mice (C57BL/J6) to TMT. Our results confirm that both mouse strains avoid TMT, which increases immobility in C57BL/J6, but not CD1 mice. However, mice of both strains sniff at TMT throughout the test and show no trace of TMT-induced contextual conditioning (immobility or avoidance). This suggests that TMT is not a kairomone but, similar to a loud noise, in high concentrations it induces aversion and stress as unspecific responses to a strong olfactory stimulation.

Keywords: 2,5-dihydro-2,4,5-trimethylthiazoline; defensive behavior; mouse; olfactory receptors; socio-sexual behavior; vomeronasal receptors.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Avoidance Learning
  • Behavior, Animal*
  • Emotions*
  • Fear
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Motor Activity
  • Odorants*
  • Olfactory Perception*
  • Olfactory Receptor Neurons / metabolism*
  • Pheromones / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Odorant / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction
  • Smell*
  • Thiazoles / metabolism*
  • Vomeronasal Organ / metabolism


  • 2,4,5 trimethylthiazoline
  • Pheromones
  • Receptors, Odorant
  • Thiazoles