The olfactory receptors of terrestrial animals exist in an aqueous environment, yet detect odorants that are primarily hydrophobic. The aqueous solubility of hydrophobic odorants is thought to be greatly enhanced via odorant binding proteins (OBP) which exist in the extracellular fluid surrounding the odorant receptors. We have isolated and partially sequenced 14 candidate OBPs from six insect (moth) species. All 14 represent a single homologous family based on conserved sequence domains. The 14 proteins can be divided into three subfamilies based on differences in tissue specific expression and similarities in amino acid sequences. All 14 proteins are specifically expressed in antennal olfactory tissue. Subfamily I represents previously described pheromone binding proteins (PBP), which are male-specific, associate with pheromone-sensitive neurons, and are highly variable in their sequences when compared among species. Subfamilies II and III are expressed in both male and female antennae, appear to associate with general-odorant-sensitive neurons, and are highly conserved when compared among species. The properties of the subfamily II and III proteins suggest these are general-odorant binding proteins (GOBP). The properties of the respective insect OBP subfamilies suggest that they have different odorant binding specificities. The association of different insect OBP subfamilies with distinct classes of olfactory neurons having different odorant specificities suggests that OBPs can act as selective signal filters, peripheral to the actual receptor proteins.
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