Manduca sexta. The brief review presented here focuses on the functional organization and physiology of a sexually dimorphic olfactory subsystem in this species [also reviewed elsewhere (19, 23, 40-42)].
The principal long-term goals of this line of research are to understand the neurobiological mechanisms through which the conspecific females' sex pheromone is detected and information about it is integrated with inputs of other modalities in the male moth's brain and to unravel how the message ultimately initiates and controls his characteristic behavioral responses. Pursuit of these goals promises to teach us much about how the brain processes olfactory information and uses it to shape behavior. Our studies to date have persuaded us that the male's olfactory system consists of two parallel subsystems: one is a complex, sexually isomorphic pathway that processes information about plant (and probably other environmental) odors encoded in "across-fiber" patterns of physiological activity and bears striking similarities to the main olfactory pathway in vertebrates, and the other is a sexually dimorphic "labeled-line" pathway specialized to detect and process information about the sex pheromone.
The sex pheromones of moths generally are mixtures of two or more chemical components, typically aldehydes, acetates, alcohols, or hydrocarbons, produced in specialized glands by biosynthesis and modification of fatty acids (34). Often, a species-specific blend of components is the message, and males of many moth species, including M. sexta, give their characteristic, qualitatively and quantitatively optimal behavioral responses only when stimulated by the correct blend of sex-pheromone components and not by individual components or partial blends lacking key components (43, 44).
Solvent washes of the pheromone gland of female M. sexta yield eight C16 aldehydes (as well as four C18 aldehydes believed not to be pheromone components) (44). A synthetic mixture of the C16 aldehydes elicits the same behavioral responses in males as does the signal released by a calling female (44, 45). A blend of two of the components, the dienal (E,Z)-10,12-hexadecadienal and the trienal (E,E,Z)-10,12,14-hexadecatrienal-hereinafter called components A and B, respectively—elicits an apparently normal sequence of male behavior in a wind tunnel, but the individual components are ineffective (44). Field trapping studies have shown that a blend of the eight C16 aldehydes is significantly more effective in attracting males than are blends of fewer components (46), suggesting that all eight C16 aldehydes play roles in the communication system of M. sexta—i.e., that the sex pheromone of this species is composed of those eight C16 aldehydes (44, 45).