Journal of Comparative Physiology A

, Volume 199, Issue 11, pp 911–928 | Cite as

Mixture and odorant processing in the olfactory systems of insects: a comparative perspective

  • Marie R. CliffordEmail author
  • Jeffrey A. RiffellEmail author


Natural olfactory stimuli are often complex mixtures of volatiles, of which the identities and ratios of constituents are important for odor-mediated behaviors. Despite this importance, the mechanism by which the olfactory system processes this complex information remains an area of active study. In this review, we describe recent progress in how odorants and mixtures are processed in the brain of insects. We use a comparative approach toward contrasting olfactory coding and the behavioral efficacy of mixtures in different insect species, and organize these topics around four sections: (1) Examples of the behavioral efficacy of odor mixtures and the olfactory environment; (2) mixture processing in the periphery; (3) mixture coding in the antennal lobe; and (4) evolutionary implications and adaptations for olfactory processing. We also include pertinent background information about the processing of individual odorants and comparative differences in wiring and anatomy, as these topics have been richly investigated and inform the processing of mixtures in the insect olfactory system. Finally, we describe exciting studies that have begun to elucidate the role of the processing of complex olfactory information in evolution and speciation.


Mixtures Olfaction Antennal lobe Olfactory coding 



Antennal lobe


Antennal nerve


γ-Aminobutyric acid


Lateral horn of the protocerebrum


Local interneuron


Excitatory local interneuron


Inhibitory local interneuron


Mushroom bodies


Macroglomerular complex


Olfactory bulb


Olfactory receptor


Odorant binding protein


Olfactory receptor cell


Projection neuron



We wish to thank J.G. Hildebrand for his mentoring and for many stimulating discussions on the mechanisms of mixture processing. K. Byers and E. Sanders provided comments that greatly improved the quality of this manuscript. Support was provided by the National Science Foundation (DBI 1121692) (JAR) and the University of Washington, Seattle, Royal Research Fund (JAR), as well as the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (DGE-0718124; to MRC).


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA

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