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Chemical Senses

Mammals evolved a host of mechanisms to communicate chemical information from the environment and in particular to elicit cellular responses that provide an advantage in avoiding or seeking the chemical signatures of foods, mates, toxins. In humans, chemosensation is mediated two different sensory systems: the olfactory and the gustatory systems. Together those systems provide an optimal perception of the outer and inner environment: they are involved in aroma and flavor perception of food and beverages and they act as a warning system with regards to dangerous substances. These systems are extremely complicated to fully characterize, indeed, about 450 of the GPCRs encoded in mammalian genomes are olfactory receptors and the second largest sensorial GPCR subfamily is the bitter taste receptor family, formed by about 30 members in the human genome. However the lack of structural information on the receptors dedicated to perceive chemicals is completely lacking, thus hampering a deep characterization of the molecular mechanisms underlying the interaction of the receptors with the agonists. These receptors are found in many different tissues of the human body besides the tongue and the nose. These include the respiratory system, the gastrointestinal tract, the endocrine system, and the brain. Hence, these receptors play different roles other than chemical senses, including (but not limited to) detection of toxins, to bronchodilation, and to hormone secretion. Understanding the details of receptor–agonists interactions may provide important hints on novel therapies against a variety of diseases related to receptors’ dysfunction.

This research is supported by the Ernesto Illy Foundation.

In our lab we apply and develop computational tools aimed at the characterization of the following sensing receptors: