Population Differences in the Human Functional Olfactory Repertoire

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Olfactory receptors (OR) constitute the molecular basis for the sense of smell. They are encoded by a large multigene family that in humans includes approximately 400 functional genes and approximately 600 putative pseudogenes, distributed on all but two chromosomes. To examine the ethnogeographic variability in the functional chemosensory repertoire, we resequenced 32 OR loci reported to contain a single coding region disruption in seven Caucasians and seven Pygmies. Thirteen of the 32 OR loci were found to have an interrupted coding region in all 28 alleles sampled, seven had an intact form in all the individuals examined, and 12 were polymorphic, segregating both the intact and the null variants. Among the latter loci, the frequency of the null allele was higher in Caucasians than in Pygmies, suggesting that African populations may have a larger repertoire of functional OR genes. Interestingly, when analyzing the entire OR coding regions, we find an excess of high-frequency derived alleles at many loci in the Caucasian sample but less so in the Pygmy sample. Our observations are unlikely to be accounted for by simple demographic models but may be explained by positive selection acting on OR loci in Caucasians.

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