A remarkable feature of olfaction, and perhaps the hardest one to explain by shape-based molecular recognition, is the ability to detect the presence of functional groups in odorants, irrespective of molecular context. We previously showed that Drosophila trained to avoid deuterated odorants could respond to a molecule bearing a nitrile group, which shares the vibrational stretch frequency with the CD bond. Here, we reproduce and extend this finding by showing analogous olfactory responses of Drosophila to the chemically vastly different functional groups, thiols and boranes, that nevertheless possess a common vibration at 2600 cm-1. Furthermore, we show that Drosophila do not respond to a cyanohydrin structure that renders nitrile groups invisible to IR spectroscopy. We argue that the response of Drosophila to these odorants which parallels their perception in humans, supports the hypothesis that odor character is encoded in odorant molecular vibrations, not in the specific shape-based activation pattern of receptors.
Keywords: Drosophila; functional groups; olfaction; vibrations.