Avian olfactory receptor gene repertoires: evidence for a well-developed sense of smell in birds?

Silke S Steiger, Andrew E Fidler, Mihai Valcu, Bart Kempenaers


Among vertebrates, the sense of smell is mediated by olfactory receptors (ORs) expressed in sensory neurons within the olfactory epithelium. Comparative genomic studies suggest that the olfactory acuity of mammalian species correlates positively with both the total number and the proportion of functional OR genes encoded in their genomes. In contrast to mammals, avian olfaction is poorly understood, with birds widely regarded as relying primarily on visual and auditory inputs. Here, we show that in nine bird species from seven orders (blue tit, Cyanistes caeruleus; black coucal, Centropus grillii; brown kiwi, Apteryx australis; canary, Serinus canaria; galah, Eolophus roseicapillus; red jungle fowl, Gallus gallus; kakapo, Strigops habroptilus; mallard, Anas platyrhynchos; snow petrel, Pagodroma nivea), the majority of amplified OR sequences are predicted to be from potentially functional genes. This finding is somewhat surprising as one previous report suggested that the majority of OR genes in an avian (red jungle fowl) genomic sequence are non-functional pseudogenes. We also show that it is not the estimated proportion of potentially functional OR genes, but rather the estimated total number of OR genes that correlates positively with relative olfactory bulb size, an anatomical correlate of olfactory capability. We further demonstrate that all the nine bird genomes examined encode OR genes belonging to a large gene clade, termed γ-c, the expansion of which appears to be a shared characteristic of class Aves. In summary, our findings suggest that olfaction in birds may be a more important sense than generally believed.



    • Received May 6, 2008.
    • Accepted June 20, 2008.
  • This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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