A biophysical model of receptor potential generation in the male moth olfactory receptor neuron is presented. It takes into account all pre-effector processes—the translocation of pheromone molecules from air to sensillum lymph, their deactivation and interaction with the receptors, and the G-protein and effector enzyme activation—and focuses on the main post-effector processes. These processes involve the production and degradation of second messengers (IP3 and DAG), the opening and closing of a series of ionic channels (IP3-gated Ca2+ channel, DAG-gated cationic channel, Ca2+-gated Cl− channel, and Ca2+- and voltage-gated K+ channel), and Ca2+ extrusion mechanisms. The whole network is regulated by modulators (protein kinase C and Ca2+-calmodulin) that exert feedback inhibition on the effector and channels. The evolution in time of these linked chemical species and currents and the resulting membrane potentials in response to single pulse stimulation of various intensities were simulated. The unknown parameter values were fitted by comparison to the amplitude and temporal characteristics (rising and falling times) of the experimentally measured receptor potential at various pheromone doses. The model obtained captures the main features of the dose–response curves: the wide dynamic range of six decades with the same amplitudes as the experimental data, the short rising time, and the long falling time. It also reproduces the second messenger kinetics. It suggests that the two main types of depolarizing ionic channels play different roles at low and high pheromone concentrations; the DAG-gated cationic channel plays the major role for depolarization at low concentrations, and the Ca2+-gated Cl− channel plays the major role for depolarization at middle and high concentrations. Several testable predictions are proposed, and future developments are discussed.
All sensory neurons transduce their natural stimulus, whether a molecule, a photon, or a mechanical force, in an electrical current flowing through their sensory membrane via similar molecular and ionic mechanisms. Olfactory receptor neurons (ORNs), whose stimuli are volatile molecules, are no exception, including one of the best known: the exquisitely sensitive ORNs of male moths that detect the sexual pheromone released by conspecific females. We provide a detailed computational model of the intracellular molecular mechanisms at work in this ORN type. We describe qualitatively and quantitatively how the initial event, the interaction of pheromone molecules with specialized receptors at the ORN surface, is amplified through a sequence of linked biochemical and electrical events into a whole cell response, the receptor potential. We detail the respective roles of the upward activating reactions involving a cascade of ionic channels permeable to cations, chloride and potassium, their control by feedback inactivating mechanisms, and the central regulatory role of calcium. This computational model contributes to an integrated understanding of this signalling pathway, provides testable hypotheses, and suggests new experimental approaches.