PNAS 108: 11235-40.
Predator-prey relationships provide a classic paradigm for the study of innate animal behavior. Odors from carnivores elicit stereotyped fear and avoidance responses in rodents, although sensory mechanisms involved are largely unknown. Here, we identified a chemical produced by predators that activates a mouse olfactory receptor and produces an innate behavioral response. We purified this predator cue from bobcat urine and identified it to be a biogenic amine, 2-phenylethylamine. Quantitative HPLC analysis across 38 mammalian species indicates enriched 2-phenylethylamine production by numerous carnivores, with some producing >3,000-fold more than herbivores examined. Calcium imaging of neuronal responses in mouse olfactory tissue slices identified dispersed carnivore odor-selective sensory neurons that also responded to 2-phenylethylamine. Two prey species, rat and mouse, avoid a 2-phenylethylamine odor source, and loss-of-function studies involving enzymatic depletion of 2-phenylethylamine from a carnivore odor indicate it to be required for full avoidance behavior. Thus, rodent olfactory sensory neurons and chemosensory receptors have the capacity for recognizing interspecies odors. One such cue, carnivore-derived 2-phenylethylamine, is a key component of a predator odor blend that triggers hard-wired aversion circuits in the rodent brain. These data show how a single, volatile chemical detected in the environment can drive an elaborate danger-associated behavioral response in mammals.