What's That Odor? Better Ask a Monkey
By NICHOLAS WADE
Published: January 20, 2004
If you see the world with only two color-detecting pigments in your eye, as
many monkeys do, your sense of smell is very important. But in higher primates,
which see with three pigments, the sense of smell is less critical,
evolutionary biologists have found - to the extent that people have lost the
use of more than half their odor-detecting genes.
The finding has emerged from analysis of odor-detecting genes in the primate
tree, which includes people, monkeys and apes. A large proportion of the genes
have become inactive in just those primate species that have developed full
color vision, say Dr. Yoav Gilad and Dr. Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck
Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
The detection of smell begins with special receptors embedded in the surface of
the nerve cells in the nose. Humans have more than 1,000 receptor-making genes.
But analysis of the DNA sequence of these genes, made possible by the recent
decoding of the human genome, shows that about 60 percent of the genes carry a
mutation that would render useless the receptor protein they specify.
This is a strikingly higher proportion than the 20 percent of olfactory genes
that are inactive in dogs and mice. To get a fix on where in the primate line
olfactory receptor genes started to become so dispensable, Dr. Gilad, Dr. Pääbo
and their colleagues analyzed a set of olfactory genes in people and 18 other
In apes and Old World monkeys, 30 percent of these genes were inactive; but,
with one exception, New World monkeys had lost less than 20 percent, the
researchers report in today's issue of The Public Library of Science/Biology.
The exception, the howler monkey, had lost 30 percent of its odor genes, just
like the apes and Old World monkeys. And like them, the howler monkey has full
color vision, the only New World monkey to have evolved this faculty.
Many New World monkeys have only two opsins, the visual pigments sensitive to
particular colors of light. Some 23 million years ago, after the split with New
World monkeys, the Old World monkeys and apes acquired a third opsin, sensitive
to a different region of the spectrum, and thus gained three-color vision. The
howler monkey was lucky enough to duplicate one of its opsin genes some 11
million years ago, putting itself in the three-color vision league.
Better vision may help monkeys distinguish ripe fruit from unripe, or young
leaves from old, and thus make them less dependent on the sense of smell. The
decline in the sense of smell may not be the direct result of the evolution of
color vision, the Leipzig researchers say, but the two factors do seem to be
"It's a compelling correlation, to me at least, and what makes it compelling is
the howler monkeys," said Dr. Gerald H. Jacobs, an expert on primate color
vision at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Dr. Pääbo, with his interest in human evolution, wondered when the process of
losing olfactory genes first started. He estimates it began two million years
ago, just before the advance represented by the emergence of Homo erectus, a
more capable hominid with a larger brain.
The loss of olfactory genes is continuing. Dr. Pääbo has found some people in
the in-between state of having inherited an inactive smell gene from one parent
and an active version of the same gene from the other parent. "This is an
unusually dramatic example of the fact that our genome is still evolving," Dr.
The inactive one will probably become more common in the population, until it
has driven the active version of the olfactory receptor gene into extinction.
"We will probably lose over 100 or more genes in the future," Dr. Pääbo said.
Humans are not the only ones in an in-between state. The New World monkeys have
only two opsin genes, and males see the world with the help of just two color
pigments. But one of the opsin genes lies on the X chromosome; females have two
copies of it, males only one.
The X-based opsin has two versions: one responds to long wave light and other
to medium wavelengths. If the female New World monkeys are lucky enough to have
inherited the long-wave opsin gene from one parent and the medium wave from the
other, then they have three-color vision, Dr. Jacobs has found.
But if they inherit the same version of the gene from each parent, they are
destined to see the world with two-color vision, just as the males do. The
howler monkey broke out of this impasse through a genetic accident that
duplicated the X-based opsin gene and allowed howlers of each sex to have
The primate retina seems wired to be able to take advantage of an extra color
pigment, but it is not clear if this is true of other animals. Dr. Jacobs said
that mice with an extra opsin gene, borrowed from humans, have been engineered
by Dr. Jeremy Nathans of Johns Hopkins and that he and Dr. Nathans were trying
to figure out whether color vision in the mice was enhanced.