Odor information is predominantly perceived as complex odor blends. For Drosophila melanogaster one of the most attractive blends is emitted by an over-ripe banana. To analyze how the fly's olfactory system processes natural blends we combined the experimental advantages of gas chromatography and functional imaging (GC-I). In this way, natural banana compounds were presented successively to the fly antenna in close to natural occurring concentrations. This technique allowed us to identify the active odor components, use these compounds as stimuli and measure odor-induced Ca(2+) signals in input and output neurons of the Drosophila antennal lobe (AL), the first olfactory neuropil. We demonstrate that mixture interactions of a natural blend are very rare and occur only at the AL output level resulting in a surprisingly linear blend representation. However, the information regarding single components is strongly modulated by the olfactory circuitry within the AL leading to a higher similarity between the representation of individual components and the banana blend. This observed modulation might tune the olfactory system in a way to distinctively categorize odor components and improve the detection of suitable food sources. Functional GC-I thus enables analysis of virtually any unknown natural odorant blend and its components in their relative occurring concentrations and allows characterization of neuronal responses of complete neural assemblies. This technique can be seen as a valuable complementary method to classical GC/electrophysiology techniques, and will be a highly useful tool in future investigations of insect-insect and insect-plant chemical interactions.
Keywords: Drosophila; blend coding; gas chromatography; in vivo calcium imaging; insect antennal lobe; olfaction.