Collaborative Research: Analysis of the Mammalian Olfactory Code

Project: Research project

Project Details


This project was developed during a NSF Ideas Lab on 'Cracking the Olfactory Code' and is jointly funded by the Chemistry of Life Processes program in the Chemistry Division, the Mathematical Biology program in the Division of Mathematical Sciences, the Physics of Living Systems program in the Physics Division, the Neural Systems Cluster in the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems, the Division of Biological Infrastructure, and the Division of Emerging Frontiers.

The mammalian sense of smell is arguably the most complex sensory system in the animal kingdom. Hundreds of olfactory receptors are deployed to detect a vast array of chemicals with exquisite sensitivity in complex environments. This collaborative project combines biochemistry, neurobiology, genomics, mathematics and new technologies to understand how the mammalian olfactory system detects, encodes and extracts meaning from chemical stimuli. The goals of this project are to: (1) elucidate fundamental neural mechanisms for how chemical sensation turns into the perception of a smell; (2) produce a vast array of scientific resources to olfactory scientists; (3) provide valuable information for broader audiences, including for molecular evolution, chemical ecology, and flavor and fragrance communities; (4) establish new technologies and mathematical frameworks to study biological systems; and (5) facilitate applied chemical sensing technologies for environmental monitoring, food safety, and homeland security. The project also offers training opportunities from the high school to the postdoctoral trainee level, and educational opportunities and outreach through partnerships with local science museums as well as science learning centers and their media outlets.

This project's efforts are organized around three aims that focus on how information about odor identity and odor valence (attractiveness/aversiveness) is encoded at the level of olfactory receptors (Aim 1); within the olfactory bulb, where odor information is first processed (Aim 2); and the cortical amygdala, where odor codes may integrate with other information streams (Aim 3). Completion of the project entails the development and use a broad array of innovative approaches that include mapping all human and mouse odorant receptors to the chemicals they bind, defining the innate valence of these chemicals using behavioral assays, mapping all odorant receptor projections to the olfactory bulb, functionally characterizing their neural representations in the olfactory bulb and cortical amygdala, and using novel mathematical approaches to understand the underlying structure of odor coding and olfactory neural circuits at the level of sensory neurons, olfactory bulb glomeruli, and amygdala. Progress towards each aim involves close collaborations between team members with diverse expertise, including molecular biology, behavioral neuroscience, in vivo functional imaging, and mathematical and theoretical analysis of complex datasets. The multidisciplinary strategy implemented here promises to lead to an integrated and comprehensive understanding of how mammals sense and make sense of their chemical environments.

Effective start/end date11/1/1510/31/21


  • National Science Foundation: $395,701.00


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