The encoding of odors is believed to begin as a combinatorial code consisting of distinct patterns of responses from odorant receptors (ORs), trace-amine associated receptors (TAARs), or both. To determine how specific response patterns arise requires detecting patterns in vivo and understanding how the components of an odor, which are nearly always mixtures of odorants, give rise to parts of the pattern. Cigarette smoke, a common and clinically relevant odor consisting of > 400 odorants, evokes responses from 144 ORs and 3 TAARs in freely behaving male and female mice, the first example of in vivo responses of both ORs and TAARs to an odor. As expected, a simplified artificial mimic of cigarette smoke odor tested at low concentration to identify highly sensitive receptors evokes responses from four ORs, all also responsive to cigarette smoke. Human subjects of either sex identify 1-pentanethiol as the odorant most critical for perception of the artificial mimic; and in mice the OR response patterns to these two odors are significantly similar. Fifty-eight ORs respond to the headspace above 25% 1-pentanethiol, including 9 ORs responsive to cigarette smoke. The response patterns to both cigarette smoke and 1-pentanethiol have strongly responsive ORs spread widely across OR sequence diversity, consistent with most other combinatorial codes previously measured in vivo. The encoding of cigarette smoke is accomplished by a broad receptor response pattern, and 1-pentanethiol is responsible for a small subset of the responsive ORs in this combinatorial code.

SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Complex odors are usually perceived as distinct odor objects. Cigarette smoke is the first complex odor whose in vivo receptor response pattern has been measured. It is also the first pattern shown to include responses from both odorant receptors and trace-amine associated receptors, confirming that the encoding of complex odors can be enriched by signals coming through both families of receptors. Measures of human perception and mouse receptor physiology agree that 1-pentanethiol is a critical component of a simplified odorant mixture designed to mimic cigarette smoke odor. Its receptor response pattern helps to link those of the artificial mimic and real cigarette smoke, consistent with expectations about perceptual similarity arising from shared elements in receptor response patterns.

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Published in The Journal of Neuroscience, v. 40, issue 37.

Copyright © 2020 the authors

The authors grant the Society for Neuroscience an exclusive license to publish their work for the first 6 months. After 6 months the work becomes available to the public to copy, distribute, or display under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license.

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This work was supported by National Institutes of Health R01DC014423; University of Kentucky Vice President for Research IRC program award to T.S.M.