Flexing the nose

Illustraiont of Potatoheads

The next time you head to the gym, you might be tempted to check your nose at the door. But there’s at least one molecule in the nose worth taking along.

When muscle cells need repair, they use odor-detecting tools similar to those found in the nose to start the process.

Found on the surfaces of neurons inside the nose, odorant receptors bind and respond to substances wafting through the air. Emory pharmacologist Grace Pavlath and graduate student Christine Griffin have discovered that one particular odorant receptor gene, MOR23, is active in muscle cells undergoing repair. 

Pavlath was surprised by the finding. “Normally MOR23 is not turned on when the tissue is at rest, so we wouldn’t have picked it up without looking specifically at muscle injury,” she says. 

It turns out that interfering with the MOR23 gene inhibits the ability of muscle cells to migrate, stick to each other, and form long fibers. In addition, MOR23 is the first molecule researchers have identified that seems to influence the process of myofiber branching (a form of degeneration seen in muscular dystrophies and aging).

The research, published in the November issue of Developmental Cell, could lead to new ways to treat muscular dystrophies and other muscle-wasting diseases. It suggests that odorant receptors may have additional functions in other tissues too.

Pavlath wants to identify the molecule in the body that activates MOR23 and investigate what jobs other odorant receptors perform in muscle. “There is a tremendous variation in humans as far as what odors individuals can recognize,” she says. “Could this be linked somehow to differences in the ability to repair muscle?” —Quinn Eastman

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