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New role for pheromones?

Pheromones may not initiate sexual attraction and mating, as commonly believed, new research suggests. Instead, the chemical signals may help flies distinguish between different genders and species while choosing a mate, researchers linkurl:report;http://www.nature.com/nature/index.html in this week's issue of Nature. The cells in Drosophila melanogaster that produce pheromones are located in the abdomen. These 'oenocytes' are revealed by expression of a protein fluorescing green. Image: Jea

By | October 14, 2009

Pheromones may not initiate sexual attraction and mating, as commonly believed, new research suggests. Instead, the chemical signals may help flies distinguish between different genders and species while choosing a mate, researchers linkurl:report;http://www.nature.com/nature/index.html in this week's issue of Nature.
The cells in Drosophila melanogaster that
produce pheromones are located in
the abdomen. These 'oenocytes' are
revealed by expression of a protein
fluorescing green.

Image: Jean-Christophe Billeter
"This is the first time a study has deciphered the chemical dialogue happening between flies as they mate," said linkurl:Nicolas Gompel,;http://www.ibdml.univ-mrs.fr/equipes/BP_NG/Nicolas%20Gompel's%20page.html a geneticist at the Institut de Biologie du Developpement de Marseille-Luminy in France, who was not involved with the research but wrote an accompanying commentary on the paper. "The research challenges the common belief that pheromones are essential to initiate courtship... and suggests that instead, [they] play a significant role in mate identification and selection." Scientists have long understood that pheromones, hydrocarbons produced by an animal or insect that trigger reactions in another individual, play a role in mating. But they've been unable to identify the role of individual pheromones because the hydrocarbons are often secreted as blends, comprised of up to 30 molecules, and function in conjunction with other signals. In order to study individual pheromones, linkurl:Jean-Christophe Billeter;http://www.utm.utoronto.ca/~w3bio/people/contacts/post_docs.htm from the University of Toronto at Mississauga and his colleagues genetically engineered adult Drosophila melanogaster without oenocytes, cells that secrete hydrocarbons. The oenocyte-less flies were "blank slates," said linkurl:Joel Levine,;http://www.utm.utoronto.ca/~w3bio/faculty_and_research/levine.htm a geneticist from the University of Toronto and coauthor of the study, allowing the team to imprint one pheromone at a time. Because pheromones have been generally believed to stimulate mating, Billeter and his colleagues expected that flies lacking hydrocarbons would be sexually unappealing to males. To their surprise, quite the opposite happened: wild-type males were hyperattracted to oenocyte-less flies. The wild-type males also ignored gender, choosing to mate with both unscented males and females over other wild-types. These results led the researchers to conclude that pheromones may not stimulate mating, but may instead act to slow down male mating attempts to allow the female to assess her partner's suitability. They also concluded that hydrocarbons help flies distinguish between sexes.
Billeter and his colleagues then tested the effect of individual pheromones on mate selection and copulation attempts. Researchers treated unscented D. melanogaster with wild-type levels of cVA, a hydrocarbon males are known to coat on females to deter further mating attempts. As expected, cVA effectively created a "chemical chastity belt," said Gompel. Researchers then treated unscented flies with 7,11-heptacosadiene (7,11-HD), a pheromone thought to act as an aphrodisiac for flies. Although 7,11-HD alone did not stimulate additional mating attempts, when applied over cVA, it helped diminish the inhibiting effect of the compound, allowing females to broadcast their mating availability. The findings suggested that mating doesn't depend on just one pheromone relaying a message of availability, but instead on a complex mixture of attractive and aversive signals. 7,11-HD also seemed to act as a species barrier in mating. Unscented D. melanogaster females treated with the hydrocarbon attracted males of the same species, but deterred D. simulans and D. yakuba males. "It's neat that one hydrocarbon (7, 11-HD) acts both as an aphrodisiac to males of D. melanogaster and also as a key compound causing males of other closely related species in the genus to reject her," said linkurl:Tristram Wyatt,;http://www.zoo.ox.ac.uk/staff/academics/wyatt_td.htm an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford. "It's surprising at first sight, but perhaps it's another example of evolution resulting in simple solutions, two effects for one." Billeter's study isn't the first time that the pheromone-less flies have been shown to be hyperattractive. Fabrice Savarit from the Universite Paris Sud and colleagues reported similar results in linkurl:1999.;http://www.pnas.org/content/96/16/9015.full.pdf "One of the main differences between our study and Billeter's is his team was able to cleanly get rid of oenocytes," said linkurl:Matthew Cobb,;http://www.ls.manchester.ac.uk/people/profile/index.asp?id=1675 an evolutionary neurobiologist at the University of Manchester in England and coauthor of the 1999 study. "We produced pheromone-less flies in a roundabout way by overexpressing the UAS-tra transgene. Billeter's methodology is much more precise and reproducible." Billeter's study was also able to produce pheromone-less male flies, something Cobb's team failed to do. Wyatt agreed, noting that the "blank canvas" flies will be invaluable "in further researching the neural circuits involved in sex and species recognition in these flies." Cobb also noted that while hydrocarbons excreted by oenocytes may not initiate mating in flies, other pheromones might. In their 1999 study, Savarit and his colleagues noticed there was still a small amount of pheromones on their supposedly hydrocarbon-less female flies. Cobb noticed a similar trend in Billeter's data. "It seems even after they wiped out all the oenocytes in flies, there is a tiny -- we're talking less than 10 millivolts -- but significant amount of hydrocarbons still present," he said. "These might be ancestral pheromones, or not, but either way it is very intriguing."
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:The scent of fear;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/54943/
[21st August 2008]*linkurl:Sexual communication in tears;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/22789/
[6th October 2005]*linkurl:Pheromonal thinking;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/21108/
[14th February 2003]
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Comments

Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 85

October 14, 2009

\n\nI learned a new word today, thanks to this article -- "oenocytes."\n\nI wonder about the etymology of this word. Is it derived from the same root as "oenophile" (wine lover) ?? \n\nI can't resist noting that I'm inquiring about entymology's etymology.\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 29

October 15, 2009

"Oeno" is in fact derived from Greek mythology,and does refer to wine. I assume (but don't know) that oenocytes take their name from the fact that they occur in grape-like clusters. The part I don't understand is why the hydrocarbons are quantified in "millivolts."
Avatar of: Katherine Bagley

Katherine Bagley

Posts: 2

October 15, 2009

Millivolt levels of hydrocarbons were referred to in Figure 1F (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v461/n7266/pdf/nature08495.pdf). \n\nThe actual figure description states "Cuticular hydrocarbons of single flies were analysed using gas chromatography. Chromatograms plot the peak area associated with the amount of a specific hydrocarbon."\n\nWhen contacted by The Scientist for further clarification, Joel Levine, a coauthor of the Nature paper, replied: \n"The measurements are given by a Flame Ionization Detector. This device burns up each hydrocarbon in the sample sequentially over time and an electrical potential applied across the flame causes a flow of electricity with a current that is proportional to the number of carbon atoms entering the detector within a given time. We load known amounts of compounds that are not on the fly. By comparing the amounts from the fly with the known amounts we can calculate how much is there. But the unit of measurement is millivolts and this is a standard method for quantifying the mass of an organic compound."

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