Humans perceive an immense variety of chemicals as having distinct odors. Odor perception initiates in the nose, where odorants are detected by a large family of olfactory receptors (ORs). ORs have diverse protein sequences but can be assigned to subfamilies on the basis of sequence relationships. Members of the same subfamily have related sequences and are likely to recognize structurally related odorants. To gain insight into the mechanisms underlying odor perception, we analyzed the human OR gene family. By searching the human genome database, we identified 339 intact OR genes and 297 OR pseudogenes. Determination of their genomic locations showed that OR genes are unevenly distributed among 51 different loci on 21 human chromosomes. Sequence comparisons showed that the human OR family is composed of 172 subfamilies. Types of odorant structures that may be recognized by some subfamilies were predicted by identifying subfamilies that contain ORs with known odor ligands or human homologs of such ORs. Analysis of the chromosomal locations of members of each OR subfamily revealed that most subfamilies are encoded by a single chromosomal locus. Moreover, many loci encode only one or a few subfamilies, suggesting that different parts of the genome may, to some extent, be involved in the detection of different types of odorant structural motifs.
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