The Birth and Death of Olfactory Receptor Gene Families in Mammalian Niche Adaptation Academic Article uri icon


  • The olfactory receptor (OR) gene families, which govern mammalian olfaction, have undergone extensive expansion and contraction through duplication and pseudogenization. Previous studies have shown that broadly defined environmental adaptations (e.g., terrestrial vs. aquatic) are correlated with the number of functional and non-functional OR genes retained. However, to date, no study has examined species-specific gene duplications in multiple phylogenetically divergent mammals to elucidate OR evolution and adaptation. Here, we identify the OR gene families driving adaptation to different ecological niches by mapping the fate of species-specific gene duplications in the OR repertoire of 94 diverse mammalian taxa, using molecular phylogenomic methods. We analyze >70,000 OR gene sequences mined from whole genomes, generated from novel amplicon sequencing data, and collated with data from previous studies, comprising one of the largest OR studies to date. For the first time, we demonstrate statistically significant patterns of OR species-specific gene duplications associated with the presence of a functioning vomeronasal organ. With respect to dietary niche, we uncover a novel link between a large number of duplications in OR family 5/8/9 and herbivory. Our results also highlight differences between social and solitary niches, indicating that a greater OR repertoire expansion may be associated with a solitary lifestyle. This study demonstrates the utility of species-specific duplications in elucidating gene family evolution, revealing how the OR repertoire has undergone expansion and contraction with respect to a number of ecological adaptations in mammals.

altmetric score

  • 12.4

author list (cited authors)

  • Hughes, G. M., Boston, E., Finarelli, J. A., Murphy, W. J., Higgins, D. G., & Teeling, E. C.

citation count

  • 47

complete list of authors

  • Hughes, Graham M||Boston, Emma SM||Finarelli, John A||Murphy, William J||Higgins, Desmond G||Teeling, Emma C

publication date

  • March 2018