Open Access Open Badges Research article

The sea lamprey has a primordial accessory olfactory system

Steven Chang1, Yu-Wen Chung-Davidson1, Scot V Libants1, Kaben G Nanlohy1, Matti Kiupel2, C Titus Brown34 and Weiming Li1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Michigan State University, 480 Wilson Road, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA

2 Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health, Michigan State University, 4125 Beaumont Road, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA

3 Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Michigan State University, 428 S. Shaw Lane, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA

4 Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, Michigan State University, 567 Wilson Road, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:172  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-172

Published: 17 August 2013



A dual olfactory system, represented by two anatomically distinct but spatially proximate chemosensory epithelia that project to separate areas of the forebrain, is known in several classes of tetrapods. Lungfish are the earliest evolving vertebrates known to have this dual system, comprising a main olfactory and a vomeronasal system (VNO). Lampreys, a group of jawless vertebrates, have a single nasal capsule containing two anatomically distinct epithelia, the main (MOE) and the accessory olfactory epithelia (AOE). We speculated that lamprey AOE projects to specific telencephalic regions as a precursor to the tetrapod vomeronasal system.


To test this hypothesis, we characterized the neural circuits and molecular profiles of the accessory olfactory epithelium in the sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus). Neural tract-tracing revealed direct and reciprocal connections with the dorsomedial telencephalic neuropil (DTN) which in turn projects directly to the dorsal pallium and the rostral hypothalamus. High-throughput sequencing demonstrated that the main and the accessory olfactory epithelia have virtually identical profiles of expressed genes. Real time quantitative PCR confirmed expression of representatives of all 3 chemoreceptor gene families identified in the sea lamprey genome.


Anatomical and molecular evidence shows that the sea lamprey has a primordial accessory olfactory system that may serve a chemosensory function.