BACKGROUND: Chemosensory systems play key roles in the survival and reproductive success of insects. Insect chemoreception is mediated by two large and diverse gene superfamilies, chemoreceptors and odorant binding proteins (OBPs). OBPs are believed to transport hydrophobic odorants from the environment to the olfactory receptors. RESULTS: We identified a family of OBP-like genes in the silkworm genome and characterized their expression using oligonucleotide microarrays. A total of forty-four OBP genes were annotated, a number comparable to the 57 OBPs known from Anopheles gambiae and 51 from Drosophila melanogaster. As seen in other fully sequenced insect genomes, most silkworm OBP genes are present in large clusters. We defined six subfamilies of OBPs, each of which shows lineage-specific expansion and diversification. EST data and OBP expression profiles from multiple larvae tissues of day three fifth instars demonstrated that many OBPs are expressed in chemosensory-specific tissues although some OBPs are expressed ubiquitously and others exclusively in non-chemosensory tissues. Some atypical OBPs are expressed throughout development. These results reveal that, although many OBPs are chemosensory-specific, others may have more general physiological roles. CONCLUSION: Silkworms possess a number of OBPs genes similar to other insects. Their expression profiles suggest that many OBPs may be involved in olfaction and gustation as well as general carriers of hydrophobic molecules. The expansion of OBP gene subfamilies and sequence divergence indicate that the silkworm OBP family acquired functional diversity concurrently with functional constraints. Further investigation of the OBPs of the silkworm could give insights in the roles of OBPs in chemoreception.
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