Exchanging ligand-binding specificity between a pair of mouse olfactory receptor paralogs reveals odorant recognition principles
A multi-gene family of 1000 G protein-coupled olfactory receptors (ORs) constitutes the molecular basis of mammalian olfaction. Due to the lack of structural data its remarkable capacity to detect and discriminate thousands of odorants remains poorly understood on the structural level of the receptor. Using site-directed mutagenesis we transferred ligand specificity between two functionally related ORs and thereby revealed amino acid residues of central importance for odorant recognition and discrimination of the two receptors. By exchanging two of three residues, differing at equivalent positions of the putative odorant binding site between the mouse OR paralogs Olfr73 (mOR-EG) and Olfr74 (mOR-EV), we selectively changed ligand preference but remarkably also signaling activation strength in both ORs. Computer modeling proposed structural details at atomic resolution how the very same odorant molecule might interact with different contact residues to induce different functional responses in two related receptors. Our findings provide a mechanistic explanation of how the olfactory system distinguishes different molecular aspects of a given odorant molecule, and unravel important molecular details of the combinatorial encoding of odorant identity at the OR level.