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Surprising Twists in the Evolution of Smell and Chemical Sensing

A groundbreaking study reveals the mechanisms behind sensory evolution in fruit flies, showing how genetic and cellular variations enable them to adapt their senses to different environments. The research uncovers the diversity in olfactory perception and the presence of sex-specific differences, offering insights into the evolution of sensory systems across species. Credit:

New research uncovers the genetic basis of sensory adaptation in fruit flies, revealing diverse olfactory experiences and sex-specific differences in scent detection.

A new study published today (February 5) in Nature Communications<em>Nature Communications</em> is a peer-reviewed, open-access, multidisciplinary, scientific journal published by Nature Portfolio. It covers the natural sciences, including physics, biology, chemistry, medicine, and earth sciences. It began publishing in 2010 and has editorial offices in London, Berlin, New York City, and Shanghai. ” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]” tabindex=”0″ role=”link”>Nature Communications unveils the hidden world of sensory evolution in fruit flies. By delving into the genes and cells behind their delicate noses and tongues, researchers have discovered surprising secrets about how these tiny insects adapt their senses to different environments.

“Imagine a world where a ripe peach tastes and smells like tangy vinegar to one fly, but like a burst of summer to another,” explains principal author of the study Dr. Roman Arguello, a Lecturer in Genetics, Genomics and Fundamental Cell Biology at Queen Mary University of London. “Our study shows that this is not just possible, but it’s actually quite common.”

Genetic Insights Into Olfaction

The research team analyzed the gene expression patterns in five key scent-detecting tissues across six different Drosophila speciesA species is a group of living organisms that share a set of common characteristics and are able to breed and produce fertile offspring. The concept of a species is important in biology as it is used to classify and organize the diversity of life. There are different ways to define a species, but the most widely accepted one is the biological species concept, which defines a species as a group of organisms that can interbreed and produce viable offspring in nature. This definition is widely used in evolutionary biology and ecology to identify and classify living organisms.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]” tabindex=”0″ role=”link”>species. This comprehensive approach allowed them to delve deeper than ever before into the molecular underpinnings of smell.

One surprising discovery was the prevalence of “stabilizing selection,” a force that keeps most genes expressed at the same levels across generations. However, within this sea of stability, the researchers found thousands of genes that had undergone significant changes in expression, shaping the unique olfactory landscapes of different fly species.

Chemosensory Tissue Transcriptome Evolution

Chemosensory tissue transcriptome evolution. Credit: Gwénaëlle Bontonou et. al./Nature Communications

Diversity and Sex Differences in Sensory Perception

“It’s like finding hidden islands of diversity within a vast ocean of uniformity,” says Dr. Arguello. “These changes in gene expression tell us about the evolution of new smells, new sensitivities, and even new ways of using scent to navigate the world.”

The study also reveals intriguing differences between the sexes. In fruit flies, as in many other animals, males and females often experience the world through different olfactory lenses. The researchers identified a surprising excess of male-biased gene expression in the front legs of D. melanogaster, suggesting that these limbs play a crucial role in male-specific scent detection.

“These findings open up exciting new avenues for understanding how sex differences evolve and how they impact animal behavior,” says Dr. Arguello.

The study’s implications extend beyond the fascinating world of flies. It provides valuable insights into the general principles of how sensory systems evolve, offering clues to understanding how other animals, including humans, perceive their chemical environments.

Reference: “Evolution of chemosensory tissues and cells across ecologically diverse Drosophilids” by Gwénaëlle Bontonou, Bastien Saint-Leandre, Tane Kafle, Tess Baticle, Afrah Hassan, Juan Antonio Sánchez-Alcañiz and J. Roman Arguello, 5 February 2024, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-44558-4

Source: SciTechDaily