Murine pheromone proteins constitute a context-dependent combinatorial code governing multiple social behaviors

Cell. 2014 Apr 24;157(3):676-88. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2014.02.025.


During social interactions, an individual's behavior is largely governed by the subset of signals emitted by others. Discrimination of "self" from "other" regulates the territorial urine countermarking behavior of mice. To identify the cues for this social discrimination and understand how they are interpreted, we designed an olfactory-dependent countermarking assay. We find major urinary proteins (MUPs) sufficient to elicit countermarking, and unlike other vomeronasal ligands that are detected by specifically tuned sensory neurons, MUPs are detected by a combinatorial strategy. A chemosensory signature of "self" that modulates behavior is developed via experience through exposure to a repertoire of MUPs. In contrast, aggression can be elicited by MUPs in an experience-independent but context-dependent manner. These findings reveal that individually emitted chemical cues can be interpreted based on their combinatorial permutation and relative ratios, and they can transmit both fixed and learned information to promote multiple behaviors.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Ligands
  • Male
  • Mice / physiology*
  • Mice, Inbred BALB C
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Pheromones / analysis*
  • Pheromones / metabolism*
  • Proteins / analysis*
  • Proteins / metabolism*
  • Social Behavior*


  • Ligands
  • Pheromones
  • Proteins
  • major urinary proteins