Of volatiles and peptides: in search for MHC-dependent olfactory signals in social communication

Cell Mol Life Sci. 2014 Jul;71(13):2429-42. doi: 10.1007/s00018-014-1559-6. Epub 2014 Feb 5.


Genes of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), which play a critical role in immune recognition, are considered to influence social behaviors in mice, fish, humans, and other vertebrates via olfactory cues. As studied most extensively in mice, the polymorphism of MHC class I genes is considered to bring about a specific scent signature, which is decoded by the olfactory system resulting in an individual-specific reaction such as mating. On the assumption that this signature resides in volatiles, extensive attempts to identify these MHC-specific components in urine failed. Alternatively, it has been suggested that peptide ligands of MHC class I molecules are released into urine and can elicit an MHC-haplotype-specific behavioral response after uptake into the nose by sniffing. Analysis of the urinary peptide composition of mice shows that MHC-derived peptides are present, albeit in extremely low concentrations. In contrast, urine contains abundant peptides which differ between mouse strains due to genomic variations such as single-nucleotide variations or complex polymorphisms in multigene families as well as in their concentration. Thus, urinary peptides represent a real-time sampling of the expressed genome available for sensory evaluation. It is suggested that peptide variation caused by genomic differences contains sufficient information for individual recognition beyond or instead of an influence of the MHC in mice and other vertebrates.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Genes, MHC Class I / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Odorants
  • Peptides / genetics*
  • Peptides / immunology
  • Polymorphism, Genetic*
  • Smell / genetics*
  • Smell / immunology


  • Peptides