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This article is part of the supplement: The chemical senses: recent advances and new promises

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The sense of smell, its signalling pathways, and the dichotomy of cilia and microvilli in olfactory sensory cells

Rebecca Elsaesser1 and Jacques Paysan2*

Author Affiliations

1 Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 725 N. Wolfe St., 408 WBSB, Baltimore, MD 21205, USA

2 Technical University of Darmstadt, Institute of Zoology, Schnittspahnstrasse 3, D-64287 Darmstadt, Germany

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BMC Neuroscience 2007, 8(Suppl 3):S1  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-8-S3-S1

Published: 18 September 2007


Smell is often regarded as an ancillary perception in primates, who seem so dominated by their sense of vision. In this paper, we will portray some aspects of the significance of olfaction to human life and speculate on what evolutionary factors contribute to keeping it alive. We then outline the functional architecture of olfactory sensory neurons and their signal transduction pathways, which are the primary detectors that render olfactory perception possible. Throughout the phylogenetic tree, olfactory neurons, at their apical tip, are either decorated with cilia or with microvilli. The significance of this dichotomy is unknown. It is generally assumed that mammalian olfactory neurons are of the ciliary type only. The existance of so-called olfactory microvillar cells in mammals, however, is well documented, but their nature remains unclear and their function orphaned. This paper discusses the possibility, that in the main olfactory epithelium of mammals ciliated and microvillar sensory cells exist concurrently. We review evidence related to this hypothesis and ask, what function olfactory microvillar cells might have and what signalling mechanisms they use.