Olfaction is essential for the survival of animals. Diverse odor molecules in the environment are detected by the olfactory receptors (ORs) in the olfactory epithelium of the nasal cavity. There are ∼400 and ∼1,000 OR genes in the human and mouse genomes, respectively, forming the largest multigene family in mammals. The relationships between ORs and odorants are multiple-to-multiple, which allows for discriminating almost unlimited number of different odorants by a combination of ORs. However, the OR-ligand relationships are still largely unknown, and predicting the quality of odor from its molecular structure is unsuccessful.
Extensive bioinformatic analyses using the whole genomes of various organisms revealed a great variation in number of OR genes among species, reflecting the diversity of their living environments. For example, higher primates equipped with a well-developed vision system and dolphins that are secondarily adapted to the aquatic life have considerably smaller numbers of OR genes than most of other mammals do. OR genes are characterized by extremely frequent gene duplications and losses. The OR gene repertories are also diverse among human individuals, explaining the diversity of odor perception such as the specific anosmia.
OR genes are present in all vertebrates. The number of OR genes is smaller in teleost fishes than in mammals, while the diversity is higher in the former than the latter. Because the genome of amphioxus, the most basal chordate species, harbors vertebrate-like OR genes, the origin of OR genes can be traced back to the common ancestor of the phylum Chordata.