The structural basis of odorant recognition in insect olfactory receptors

Nature. 2021 Sep;597(7874):126-131. doi: 10.1038/s41586-021-03794-8. Epub 2021 Aug 4.


Olfactory systems must detect and discriminate amongst an enormous variety of odorants1. To contend with this challenge, diverse species have converged on a common strategy in which odorant identity is encoded through the combinatorial activation of large families of olfactory receptors1-3, thus allowing a finite number of receptors to detect a vast chemical world. Here we offer structural and mechanistic insight into how an individual olfactory receptor can flexibly recognize diverse odorants. We show that the olfactory receptor MhOR5 from the jumping bristletail4 Machilis hrabei assembles as a homotetrameric odorant-gated ion channel with broad chemical tuning. Using cryo-electron microscopy, we elucidated the structure of MhOR5 in multiple gating states, alone and in complex with two of its agonists-the odorant eugenol and the insect repellent DEET. Both ligands are recognized through distributed hydrophobic interactions within the same geometrically simple binding pocket located in the transmembrane region of each subunit, suggesting a structural logic for the promiscuous chemical sensitivity of this receptor. Mutation of individual residues lining the binding pocket predictably altered the sensitivity of MhOR5 to eugenol and DEET and broadly reconfigured the receptor's tuning. Together, our data support a model in which diverse odorants share the same structural determinants for binding, shedding light on the molecular recognition mechanisms that ultimately endow the olfactory system with its immense discriminatory capacity.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Binding Sites
  • Cell Line
  • DEET / metabolism
  • Eugenol / metabolism
  • Insect Proteins / chemistry*
  • Insect Proteins / genetics
  • Insect Proteins / metabolism*
  • Insecta / genetics
  • Insecta / metabolism*
  • Ion Channel Gating*
  • Ion Channels / chemistry
  • Ion Channels / genetics
  • Ion Channels / metabolism
  • Models, Molecular
  • Mutation
  • Odorants / analysis*
  • Protein Binding
  • Protein Structure, Quaternary
  • Receptors, Odorant / chemistry*
  • Receptors, Odorant / genetics
  • Receptors, Odorant / metabolism*
  • Substrate Specificity


  • Insect Proteins
  • Ion Channels
  • Receptors, Odorant
  • DEET
  • Eugenol