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Of mice and cats

May 13, 2013

This morning I had the brilliant idea to type “cat news” into Google. To my surprise there was actually like, a lot of recent stuff out there about my lil spirit animals.

So I opened up an article about how scientists have identified a specific gene that helps mice avoid predators (like catz) and it was pretty cool actually. We don’t understand very well how our sense of smell (called olfaction) can govern our behavior – like how mice will instinctively avoid the smell of cat pee for example. Most humans will also do that, but not all…

My future.

The thing about olfaction is that it works by having the tiny little odor molecules enter your nose, get stuck in your boogers (no for real the mucus part is important for smell), and then they bind to olfactory receptors. These are proteins that sit on the surface of neurons in your nose, and they are activated by specific odor molecules just like a lock and key. Get the right key to the right lock, and BAM! The glorious smell of cat piss is ignited in your brain.

These researchers decided to genetically alter a strain of mice to be missing just a SINGLE olfactory receptor and see if it changed how the mice reacted to cat urine. The receptor is called TAAR4, and they picked it because they already knew was important for sensing the smell of phenylethylamine (PEA). This is a chemical that’s apparently concentrated in carnivore urine, and I think it’s just so witty that its abbreviation sounds like “pee” lol. Anyway the mice that were lacking this specific gene wouldn’t seem to notice when there was cat urine in their cage. They were just wandering around like the little idiots they are, unlike normal mice who will be like, “aw hell naw get me outta here!”

smell ya later

This is cool and relevant work because it’s news to scientists that a single olfactory receptor could have such a big impact on an animal’s behavior. They’ve usually assumed it would be a complicated mixture of different receptors being activated by different odor molecules simultaneously, but perhaps some of the survival instincts are actually controlled by way more direct pathways. The more you know, right?

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From → Biology

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