Representing more than half of all the known living organisms, insects are the most diverse and most adaptable organisms on earth. They greatly impact today’s society by destroying or consuming almost one third of our domesticated crops and transmitting various life threatening pathogens. Malaria, one of the many diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, takes a human life every 30 seconds in Africa alone.
Like all living organisms, insects detect and respond to chemicals in their environment. Their remarkable success on earth has largely been due to their ability to adapt to new environments and utilize new food resources. To accomplish this, they display an amazing diversity in sensory structure and function. Among these, olfaction is pronounced. In some cases half of their brain is dedicated to smell. A male moth can track a ‘calling’ female from miles. Females, when ready to mate, emit tiny amounts of chemicals that are detected by elaborate and exquisite olfactory organs, i.e. antenna, in male moths. Just fifty years ago, the chemical identity of these signaling molecules was determined and the term ‘pheromone’ was coined. Subsequent neuroethological observations were groundbreaking: a single molecule of this newly discovered pheromone chemical in silk moth, bombykol, was sufficient to elicit an action potential and only a handful of bombykol molecules could induce a complete stereotypic female-search behavior in males.
Now we are at the forefront of combining these two fascinating worlds of signals and receptors. On the one hand we use various analytical and behavior/neurophysiology-guided methods to isolate and identify chemicals (ligands) that are detected by insects (receptors), and on the other hand we combine molecular, cellular, genetic and organismal studies to understand and exploit the sense of smell in insects towards their management.