Olfaction plays an important role in the life history of insects, including key behaviours such as host selection, oviposition and mate recognition. Odour perception by insects is primarily mediated by the large diverse family of odourant receptors (Ors) that are expressed on the dendrites of olfactory neurones housed within chemosensilla. However, few Or sequences have been identified from the Lepidoptera, an insect order that includes some of the most important pest species worldwide. We have identified 41 Or gene sequences from the silkworm (Bombyx mori) genome, more than double the number of published Or sequences from the Lepidoptera.
Many silkworm Ors appear to be orthologs of the 17 published tobacco budworm (Heliothis virescens) Ors indicating that many Or lineages may be conserved within the Lepidoptera. The majority of the Or genes are expressed in adult female and male antennae (determined by quantitative real-time PCR analysis), supporting their probable roles in adult olfaction. Several Or genes are expressed at high levels in both male and female antennae, suggesting they mediate the perception of common host or conspecific volatiles important to both sexes. BmOrs 45–47 group together in the same phylogenetic branch and all three are expressed at moderate female-biased ratios, six to eight times higher in female compared to male moth antennae. Interestingly, BmOrs19 and 30 appear to be expressed predominantly in female antennae, opposite to that of the published silkworm pheromone receptors BmOrs 1 and 3 that are specific to male antennae. These results suggest that BmOr19 and 30 may detect odours critical to female behaviour, such as oviposition cues or male-produced courtship pheromones.