Olfactory Navigation and the Receptor Nonlinearity

J Neurosci. 2019 May 8;39(19):3713-3727. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2512-18.2019. Epub 2019 Mar 7.


The demands on a sensory system depend not only on the statistics of its inputs but also on the task. In olfactory navigation, for example, the task is to find the plume source; allocation of sensory resources may therefore be driven by aspects of the plume that are informative about source location, rather than concentration per se. Here we explore the implications of this idea for encoding odor concentration. To formalize the notion that sensory resources are limited, we considered coding strategies that partitioned the odor concentration range into a set of discriminable intervals. We developed a dynamic programming algorithm that, given the distribution of odor concentrations at several locations, determines the partitioning that conveys the most information about location. We applied this analysis to planar laser-induced fluorescence measurements of spatiotemporal odor fields with realistic advection speeds (5-20 cm/s), with or without a nearby boundary or obstacle. Across all environments, the optimal coding strategy allocated more resources (i.e., more and finer discriminable intervals) to the upper end of the concentration range than would be expected from histogram equalization, the optimal strategy if the goal were to reconstruct the plume, rather than to navigate. Finally, we show that ligand binding, as captured by the Hill equation, transforms odorant concentration into response levels in a way that approximates information maximization for navigation. This behavior occurs when the Hill dissociation constant is near the mean odor concentration, an adaptive set-point that has been observed in the olfactory system of flies.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT The first step of olfactory processing is receptor binding, and the resulting relationship between odorant concentration and the bound receptor fraction is a saturating one. While this Hill nonlinearity can be viewed as a distortion that is imposed by the biophysics of receptor binding, here we show that it also plays an important information-processing role in olfactory navigation. Specifically, by combining a novel dynamic-programming algorithm with physical measurements of turbulent plumes, we determine the optimal strategy for encoding odor concentration when the goal is to determine location. This strategy is distinct from histogram equalization, the strategy that maximizes information about plume concentration, and is closely approximated by the Hill nonlinearity when the binding constant is near the ambient mean.

Keywords: Hill equation; adaptation; dynamic programming; efficient coding; information theory.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acetone / administration & dosage
  • Algorithms*
  • Animals
  • Nonlinear Dynamics*
  • Odorants*
  • Smell / drug effects
  • Smell / physiology*
  • Spatial Navigation / drug effects
  • Spatial Navigation / physiology*


  • Acetone