Reverse physiology: discovery of the novel neuropeptide, orphanin FQ/nociceptin

Crit Rev Neurobiol. 1998;12(3):163-76. doi: 10.1615/critrevneurobiol.v12.i3.10.


The search for novel neurotransmitters and neuropeptides has been recently revolutionized by the development of a purification strategy based on orphan G protein-coupled receptors, cloned receptors for which no natural ligands are known. This strategy uses the orphan receptor as bait to identify its natural ligand. This article will review the discovery of the first natural ligand isolated following this strategy. This ligand is a peptide that shares some striking sequence similarity to the opioid peptides and has been named Orphanin FQ or Nociceptin (OFQ/NOC). The discovery of OFQ/NOC will be described as one example of the use of orphan receptors in identifying novel neurotransmitters and neuropeptides, an example that has already been followed in the identification of other novel neuropeptides. After reviewing the conceptual and technological basis of the strategy and its successful first application, we discuss the criteria used to validate OFQ/NOC as the natural ligand of the orphan receptor and as a genuine neuropeptide. We also discuss the importance and implications of discovering OFQ/NOC mode of synthesis, which is synthesized as expected in the form of a larger polypeptide precursor, which in turn raises the question of the existence of other OFQ/NOC-related peptides. We then present an overview of the numerous studies that have blossomed after the OFQ/NOC discovery and describe the numerous physiological roles that have already been attributed to OFQ/NOC, and in particular the controversy regarding its involvement in pain perception. Because of the similarities between the OFQ/NOC and opioid systems, we also discuss overlaps between these systems and present evidence favoring a pharmacological separation between these systems. We finish by outlining the power of the orphan receptor strategy and by discussing some of its pitfalls.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology
  • Endorphins / physiology
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Neuropeptides / physiology
  • Opioid Peptides / physiology*
  • Physiology / methods*


  • Endorphins
  • Neuropeptides
  • Opioid Peptides
  • nociceptin