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Species and sex-specific chemosensory gene expression in Anopheles coluzzii and An. quadriannulatus antennae



Olfactory cues drive mosquito behaviors such as host-seeking, locating sugar sources and oviposition. These behaviors can vary between sexes and closely related species. For example, the malaria vector Anopheles coluzzii is highly anthropophilic, whereas An. quadriannulatus is not. These behavioral differences may be reflected in chemosensory gene expression.


The expression of chemosensory genes in the antennae of both sexes of An. coluzzii and An. quadriannulatus was compared using RNA-seq. The sex-biased expression of several genes in An. coluzzii was also compared using qPCR.


The chemosensory expression is mostly similar in the male antennae of An. coluzzii and An. quadriannulatus, with only a few modest differences in expression. A handful of chemosensory genes are male-biased in both species; the highly expressed gustatory receptor AgGr33, odorant binding proteins AgObp25, AgObp26 and possibly AgObp10. Although the chemosensory gene repertoire is mostly shared between the sexes, several highly female-biased AgOrs, AgIrs, and one AgObp were identified, including several whose expression is biased towards the anthropophilic An. coluzzii. Additionally, the expression of several chemosensory genes is biased towards An. coluzzii in both sexes.


Chemosensory gene expression is broadly similar between species and sexes, but several sex- biased/specific genes were identified. These may modulate sex- and species-specific behaviors. Although the male behavior of these species remains poorly studied, the identification of sex- and species-specific chemosensory genes may provide fertile ground for future work.


Anopheles coluzzii mosquitoes, one of the primary vectors of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa, depend on olfactory cues for host-seeking, identifying sources for sugar meals, as well as locating oviposition sites [1]. The behavior of female An. coluzzii, which are strongly attracted to the kairomones produced by humans [2], is in contrast to that of An. quadriannulatus females, a zoophilic sibling species that is attracted to cow odor [3]. The role of olfaction in the behavior of males of these species is less well understood. However, we do know that male An. coluzzii are attracted to plant volatiles [4], and that their chemoreceptor repertoire overlaps substantially with that of females [5]. Whether males of these species are attracted to host odors, if they share the preferential attraction to hosts observed in females, or if olfaction plays a role in mate recognition, is not known.

The antennae and the maxillary palps comprise the primary olfactory tissues of An. coluzzii. These appendages are covered densely with sensilla that house the olfactory sensory neurons which can express one of several classes of receptors: the olfactory receptors (ORs) or ionotropic receptors (IRs) (reviewed in [6]), and the gustatory receptor genes that encode the CO2 receptor (AgGr22, AgGr23 and AgGr24) that are expressed in the maxillary palps in mosquitoes [7].

ORs are heteromeric ligand-gated ion channels encoded by the highly conserved co-receptor AgOrco and one of the remaining AgOrs. AgORs differ in their tuning breadth, ranging from narrowly to broadly tuned, but many of them respond to aromatics and heterocyclics [8,9,10,11]. While ORs function as ligand-gated ion channels, there are indications that they are modulated indirectly by G-protein signaling [12, 13].

IRs are also heteromeric ligand-gated ion channels, but these can contain up to three different subunits that include one or two of the broadly expressed co-receptors AgIr25a, AgIr8a and possibly Or76b [14, 15]. In addition to these receptors, odorant-binding proteins (OBPs) play a crucial role in odorant recognition by transporting hydrophobic odorants through the hemolymph (reviewed in [16]). OBPs are thought to be expressed in support cells and secreted in the hemolymph. A similar function is postulated for some chemosensory proteins (CSPs) [17]. Finally, a host of odorant degrading enzymes, such as several esterases and cytochrome P450’s are important for terminating signal transduction [16].

Differences in olfaction driven behavior between closely related species may be reflected in the structural and/or expression differences in the underlying chemosensory genes. In Drosophila, chemosensory gene expression has diverged considerably between closely related species with varying levels of host specialization [18]. In Aedes aegypti, divergence in both the expression and odor sensitivity of AaegOr4 between the domestic and sylvatic subspecies has been linked to differential attraction to human odor [19]. Similarly, expression studies of the female antennae and maxillary palps of the anthropophilic An. coluzzii and zoophilic An. quadriannulatus have identified species-specific patterns of chemosensory gene expression, which may underlie diverging host preference [20, 21].

Chemosensory gene expression in olfactory tissues has been compared between females and males in An. coluzzii [5, 22, 23], as well as Ae. aegypti [24]. Aedes aegypti males depend on attraction to the human hosts to locate blood-meal seeking females to mate with [25]. Therefore, chemosensory genes crucial to locating hosts are expected to be expressed in both sexes in that species. Whether An. coluzzii males use human odor in locating mates or mating sites is not clear. However, the chemosensory gene repertoire is mostly shared between the sexes even though some differences in chemosensory gene expression were observed [5]. Furthermore, Foster and Takken [4] showed that while males are significantly less attracted to human odors compared to females, a non-trivial proportion of males (10%) responded to human odor in a dual choice olfactometer when the alternative was clean air. This provides some evidence that male An. coluzzii may respond to host odor, which, for example could play a role in mating swarm formation close to human habitation [26].

Species- and sex-specific and/or biased patterns of chemosensory gene expression in the olfactory organs of An. coluzzii and An. quadriannulatus may also reflect differences in preferred oviposition sites, differential attraction to plant odors, or in the possible detection of hitherto undescribed mating pheromones. For example, chemosensory genes that are specific to (i.e. expressed only in one sex) or biased in (i.e. expressed at higher level in one sex) females, and are expressed at different levels between species may be candidates for underlying oviposition and/or host-seeking behavior. Similarly, male-biased genes, especially those that vary between species, could provide rich opportunities for further work on mate recognition in the An. gambiae complex.

Male mosquitoes remain dramatically understudied compared to females. However, as sterile and transgenic mosquito techniques have emerged as a potential vector control tool, there has been renewed interest in the behavior of male anopheline mosquitoes [27]. Ongoing and future work will undoubtedly provide additional insight into these important aspects of male mosquito biology. Therefore, we compared antennal chemosensory gene expression between males of An. coluzzii and An. quadriannulatus, and included previously published data [21] to identify sex- and species-specific patterns of chemosensory gene expression between An. coluzzii and An. quadriannulatus.


Mosquito rearing

All mosquitos used in this study came from colonies that were kept and raised in the insectary at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, USA. These laboratory strains were of An. coluzzii M form (GASUA) originally collected in Suakoko, Liberia, and An. quadriannulatus (SANUQA) established from female mosquitoes collected in South Africa. Ambient conditions in the insectary were maintained at 25 °C, a relative humidity of 75–85% and a 12:12 h light:dark photocycle. Colonies were maintained by feeding females on defibrinated sheep blood using a membrane feeding system. Larvae were maintained at densities of about 150 per container in about 3.8 l (1 gallon) of water, and fed with TetraminTM (Tetra, Blacksburg, VA, USA) brand fish food. Pupae were collected each day and placed in gallon-sized adult rearing cages containing about 200–300 individuals. Males and females were kept together and fed a 5–10% sucrose solution for six to eight days until antennal dissections.

Antennal dissection and RNA isolation

Six- to eight-day-old male mosquitoes were euthanized shortly after the start of the dark cycle by placing them at − 20 °C for 5 min. Once the mosquitoes were immobilized, they were placed on dry ice, and their antennae were dissected and stored in RNAlater (Life Technologies, Grand Island, NY, USA) at 4 °C for 24 h. The next day, the samples in RNAlater were stored at − 80 °C until RNA extraction. Antennae were dissected from 200–300 males per replicate. Two replicate samples were collected for each species.

Total RNA was isolated from each sample using miRNeasy columns according to the protocol supplied by Qiagen. RNA quantity was estimated using a Qubit fluorometer (Life Technologies), and a NanoDrop spectrophotometer. RNA quality was assessed using RNA Pico LabChip analysis on an Agilent BioAnalyzer 2100 by the AgriLife Genomics Center at Texas A&M University. For each replicate, approximately 1 μg of total RNA was used to prepare mRNA libraries for sequencing.

mRNA was isolated from total RNA and cDNA libraries were prepared using an Illumina TruSeq RNA Library kit. Each single-end sequencing library contained two replicates that were given a unique barcode sequence supplied by the library kit. The libraries were sequenced over two lanes of Illumina HiSeq 2000 in single end mode. Preparation and sequencing of libraries were both performed by Texas A&M AgriLife Genomics and Bioinformatics Services. Approximately 50–70 million reads with an average read length of 51 bp were generated for each replicate sample and used for further analysis.

RNAseq analysis

Quality of the Illumina reads was assessed using FASTQC (ver 0.10.0). Sequencing reads were mapped to the reference An. gambiae PEST genome (AgamP4;, downloaded January 2020) using the software package STAR (version 2.7). No An. quadriannulatus reads were discarded for too many mismatches, despite mapping to the An. gambiae genome. Uniquely mapped reads in sorted BAM format were processed via the SpltNCigarReads tool from the Genome Analysis Toolkit [28], then used to estimate counts mapping to exon features using the featureCounts tool from the Subread package [29]. Tests for differential expression were performed in the R package EdgeR [30, 31]. Following normalization for each library, genes with CPM < 1, were excluded from the analyses. Next, we estimated common and tagwise dispersion, followed by statistical tests for significance using the ‘exactTest’ function. Genes were considered to be differentially expressed at FDR < 0.05, adjusted for multiple testing [32]. Transcripts per million (TPM) was calculated following the method described in Wagner et al. [33]. Negative Log2FC values were converted to negative fold change (FC) values using the equation FC = −(2-LogFC2).

To determine the functional roles of differentially expressed genes, we performed an analysis of molecular function and assignment of these genes to protein classes using the gene ontology database PantherDB (htpps:// For each comparison, we separately analyzed the genes that were either significantly up-regulated in An. coluzzii or in An. quadriannulatus. The list of ENSEMBL gene ID’s for DE genes was exported to PantherDB and analyzed, using the Anopheles gambiae database as the reference. The output provides a list based on the percentage of DE genes that were assigned to a given molecular function, and similarly for the protein class analyses. The list was sorted in descending order of percentage hits to a given molecular function (or protein class). The top molecular functions and protein classes identified are reported.

Quantitative PCR

Total RNA was extracted from pooled samples of male and female An. coluzzii using the Qiagen RNEasy® kit, incorporating on-column DNAse treatment using Qiagen® DNase I. RNA concentration and purity were calculating using a BioTek® Epoch™ microplate spectrophotometer and a BioTek® Take3 plate. Primers and dual-labeled probes were designed using Primer3Plus (Additional file 1: Table S1). All probes contained a FAM fluorophore and a TAMRA quencher. New primers and a probe were also designed in Primer3Plus for the established housekeeping gene Rps7. QPCR was performed using the SensiFAST™ Probe No-ROX One-Step Kit (Bioline) on a Bio-Rad® CFX96 thermocycler. Cycling was performed according to manufacturer recommendations, with reverse transcription at 45 °C for 10 min, polymerase activation at 95 °C for 2 min, followed by 40 cycles of denaturation at 95 °C for 5 s and annealing/extension at 60 °C for 20 s. Three replicate 20 μl reactions were performed with both male and female RNA for each gene. The average Cq value of each gene was calculated for both sexes. Relative gene expression levels and fold changes were calculated via the ΔΔCq method [34].


The Illumina sequencing generated between 47.2 to 67.1 million reads per library for the male antennae samples. The total reads generated for the female antennae libraries ranged between 35.2 and 53.5 million [21]. For the male antennal samples, between 88.4 and 89.5% of the total reads mapped uniquely to exon features across the two species (Additional file 2: Table S2). Minimum quality score was 33 across the entire length of the reads for each library. After application of the filtering step to exclude genes with abundance lower than one TPM (transcript per million, applied to both male and female datasets), we retained a final set of 12,329 genes out of a total of 13,796 genes found in the annotation set. All further statistical comparisons were carried out on expression data from these genes. A second filtering step was applied in our discussion of the data in which we only consider receptors with TPM > 5, and Obps with TMP > 50.

Chemosensory gene expression in An. coluzzii vs An. quadriannulatus male antennae

A relatively small number of genes (n = 536) were significantly differentially expressed between An. coluzzii and An. quadriannulatus male antennae (Additional file 3: Figure S1a, Additional file 4: Data S1). Of these, 286 were enhanced in An. coluzzii, vs 250 in An. quadriannulatus. Chemosensory gene expression was very similar between species, with only a handful of genes showing significantly enhanced expression. Overall, Or expression was highly correlated between the males of both species (R2 = 0.82, excluding Orco, Fig. 1a), with the total expression of the specific Ors comparable between species (1447.5 vs 1523.4 TPM). Of the Ors expressed > 5 TPM, only Or23 shows DE (differential expression). The expression of this gene was 4.7-fold enhanced in An. quadriannulatus (Table 1), with relatively low expression in An. coluzzii (7.8 TPM). This corresponds with previous observations of very low expression of this gene in male An. coluzzii antennae [5].

Fig. 1

Chemosensory gene expression in male antennae of An. coluzzii vs An. quadriannulatus.aOrs. bIrs.cGrs.dObps. The line indicates equal expression between the two species. In a, Orco was excluded. In b, Ir25a was excluded. In c, Gr33 was excluded. Red dots indicate significantly differentiated expression between samples

Table 1 Chemosensory genes differentially expressed in the male antennae of Anopheles coluzzii vs. An. quadriannulatus

Ir expression between An. coluzzii and An. quadriannulatus males was highly correlated when the highly expressed co-receptor gene Ir25 was included (R2 = 0.788), but in contrast to the Ors, was quite a bit lower if Ir25 was excluded (R2 = 0.399, Fig. 1b). Total Ir expression was somewhat higher in An. coluzzii males (649.5 vs 466.2 TPM). The expression of Ir75g, Ir41t.2, Ir41c and Ir75k were significantly different, and between 2.4 and 14.9-fold enhanced in An. coluzzii. However, based on a comparison between Ir expression in male An. coluzzii antennae in this study with that of Pitts et al. [5], the abundances of Ir75g and Ir41t.2 are relatively higher in our data set (Additional file 5: Figure S2).

The overall level of antennal Gr expression was similar in males of both species (343.2 vs 387.0 TPM) and was dominated by Gr33, which was expressed at a similarly high level in both species (327.4 vs 361.4 TPM, Fig. 1c). The correlation between Gr expression was therefore very high between the two species (R2 = 0.999), but disappeared entirely when Gr33 is removed and only a few very lowly expressed Grs remained (R2 = 0.012). Of the Grs expressed at > 5 TPM only Gr26 showed DE between the two species, with a 14.9-fold higher level expression in An. quadriannulatus. However, even in this species this gene was expressed at low levels (6.3 TPM), casting some doubt about the biological relevance of this observation.

Total Obp expression was similar in An. coluzzii male antennae (82,831 vs 74,7404 TPM), with a relatively high correlation (R2 = 0.84, Fig. 1d). No Obp expressed at TPM > 50 showed DE between species. Obp26, was detected at 7.3-fold higher levels in An. coluzzii males, but the difference was not significant (FDR = 0.116).

The most common molecular functions of the genes with enhanced expression in either species were ‘Binding’, ‘Catalytic activity’, and ‘Transporter activity’. The most common protein classes among the DE genes in both species were Hydrolase (PC00121), Oxidoreductase (PC00176), and Transferase (PC00220). Olfactory receptors or transmembrane signaling molecules were not among the significantly overrepresented groups in either species.

Chemosensory gene expression in An. coluzzii male vs female antennae

A total of 4664 genes with TPM > 1 showed DE between the antennae of females and males of this species (Fig. 2a). Of these, 2265 were enhanced in male antennae and 2399 were female-biased (Additional file 3: Figure S1b, Additional file 6: Data S2). A total of 59 specific Ors were expressed in the antennae of male An. coluzzii at TPM > 1, although 19 of these were expressed at low levels (TPM < 5). In the female antennae 63 specific Ors were expressed (TPM > 1). Overall, Or expression was much lower in the An. coluzzi males (1168.9 TPM) vs females (2752.1 TPM) and this was true for Orco expression as well (278.9 vs 1916 TPM). This is not surprising given the greater number of sensilla on the female antennae [35]. The correlation between Or expression in male and female antennae was intermediate (R2 = 0.566, excluding Orco, Fig. 2a). A total of 18 Ors showed DE between males and females, with all of them expressed > 5 TPM in at least one sex (Table 2). Not surprisingly, most of these were enhanced in females, with only two genes showing DE in males; Or27 and Or38 (3.3 and 2.0-fold respectively). However, these were expressed at similar levels in the sexes in a previous study [5].

Fig. 2

Chemosensory gene expression in male vs female antennae of the anthropophilic An. coluzzii.aOrs. bIrs.cGrs.dObps. The line indicates equal expression between the two species. In a, Orco was excluded. Red dots indicate significantly differentiated expression between samples

Table 2 Chemosensory genes differentially expressed between the antennae of male and female Anopheles coluzzii

Chemosensory genes whose expression is strongly biased or specific to females are of interest, as these may play a crucial role in finding hosts or oviposition sites. The Ors with the highest fold change difference between females and males were Or2, Or23 and Or45. The expression of these genes was between 6.6 and 10.7-fold that observed in males and exceeds the approximately 4-fold difference that might be expected from the larger number of sensilla on the female antennae (Table 2). All three of these genes were previously also found to be highly enhanced in female antennae of this species [5].

The overall expression of Irs was also lower in males than in females (650.3 vs 1447.3 TPM), with the number of Irs expressed at TPM > 1 at 22 and 28 in males and females, respectively. Ir expression was somewhat less correlated between males and females than Or expression (R2 = 0.403, Fig. 2b). Three of these were significantly enhanced in An. coluzzii males: Ir75g, Ir41t.1 and Ir41t.2 (Table 2). They were also the most highly expressed Irs in this sex (73.9 < TPM > 87.7), with the exception of the co-receptor Ir25a, and were between 3.3 and 5.2-fold higher expressed in males. However, like the male enhanced Ors, these male enhanced Irs were not found to be male-biased previously [5].

Among the female-biased Irs, two are co-receptors (Ir8a and Ir76b). Of the remaining, Ir7i and Ir7u were exclusive to females although expressed at relatively low levels (< 9.3 TPM). Strongly female-biased Irs were Ir7t, Ir7w and Ir100a, all of which are more than 6.4-fold enhanced in females, and expressed at very low levels in males (< 3.7 TPM, Table 1). A previous study found these Irs to be highly female-biased and expressed at low levels in males as well [5]. A suite of additional Irs was recently annotated in the An. gambiae genome [36], but none of these are expressed in the antennae of either sex in this species.

Fifteen Grs were expressed at TPM > 1 in the antennae of either sex (6 in males vs 15 in females). However, only two of these are expressed above TPM > 5: Gr33 in males and Gr55 in females. The correlation between Gr expression between sexes was very low (R2 = 0.058), and overall Gr expression is much higher in male An. coluzzii antennae (345.2 TPM) vs females (34.1 TPM). This is entirely due to Gr33, which was expressed at very high level in males (32.4 TPM), whereas it was barely expressed in females (1.1 TPM), a highly significant difference (FDR < 0.0001, Table 2, Fig. 2c). This was also found in a previous study [5]. Gr33 was the most highly expressed chemosensory receptor in the male antennae, exceeding even Orco. No other Gr was significantly enhanced in either sex. The newly added Gr62 [36], was not expressed in either sex.

A total of 28 Obps were expressed at TPM > 1 in male An. coluzzii antennae, vs 31 in females (33 total). The correlation of Obp expression between the two sexes was similar to that of the Ors with R2 = 0.59 (Fig. 2d). Like the Ors and Irs, overall Obp expression was considerably lower in male antennae (82,832 vs 220,630 TPM). Five Obps were significantly enhanced in males, but only three of these (Obp10, Obp25 and Obp26) were highly expressed (> 1821.8 TPM). The expression of all three was highly male-biased (between 6.1–17.7-fold). While Obp25 was found to be male-biased in the previous work by Pitts et al. [5] as well, this was not true for Obp10 and Opb26, both of which were female-biased in that study.

Six Obps were significantly enhanced in female antennae, of which Obp1, Obp2, Obp5 and Obp48 were medium to highly expressed (> 8248 TPM) and more than 2.4-fold enhanced in females. Amongs these, Obp2 stands out for being expressed 8.0-fold in females vs males, suggesting an important role in female-specific processes. All three were highly female-biased in the Pitts et al. [5] study as well.

We compared the expression of a small number of chemosensory genes between An. coluzzii male and female antennae using quantitative PCR (Table 3). First, we compared Orco, which was 3.9-fold higher expressed in females according to the qPCR results (Table 4). This is similar to our RNAseq results. The highly male-biased Gr33 was highly male-biased (65.2-fold) according to our qPCR results as well. However, Ir75g was not confirmed as male-biased, with qPCR indicating that this gene is expressed at approximately equal levels in both sexes. We also examined Obp26, which the qPCR results also showed to be male-biased (2.6-fold), although less so than the RNAseq data. Finally, the lowly expressed Ir7i was examined as well. The qPCR data confirmed the female-biased expression of this gene, although the estimated fold-change was lower (1.6-fold).

Table 3 Chemosensory genes differentially expressed between the antennae of male and female Anopheles quadriannulatus
Table 4 Comparison of chemosensory gene expression in An. coluzzii male vs. female antennae using qPCR

We analyzed the gene ontology, molecular function and protein class membership of differentially expressed (DE) genes. In An. coluzzi females, the top molecular functions of the upregulated genes were the terms ‘Binding’, ‘Catalytic activity’ and ‘Transporter activity’. The same molecular functions were enriched among the genes upregulated in male antennae as well. The class of proteins involved in nucleic acid binding (PC00171) hydrolase activity (PC00121) had the highest membership based on upregulated genes. These patterns were similar between male and female antennae. Olfactory receptor activity was significantly overrepresent in male upregulated genes (Fisher’s exact test: FDR = 0.034), but somewhat surprisingly, not in female upregulated genes.

Chemosensory gene expression in An. quadriannulatus male vs female antennae

A total of 4043 genes expressed at TPM > 1 showed DE between female and male antennae. Of these, 1784 were enhanced in male antennae and 2259 were female-biased (Additional file 3: Figure S1c, Additional file 7: Data S3). Of the specific Ors, 60 were expressed at TMP > 1 in either sex and all were detected in both males and females. As in An. coluzzii, overall specific Or expression was considerably lower in antennae of males than in females (1096.7 TPM in males vs 1903.2 TPM in females), as is Orco expression (426.5 vs 1367.1 TPM, respectively). The correlation between overall specific Or expression was similar to that between An. coluzzii males and females (R2 = 0.68 excluding Orco, Fig. 3a). The expression of 20 specific Ors was significantly enhanced between sexes (Table 3, Fig. 3a). Of these, only the expression of Or27 was enhanced significantly and 2.3-fold higher in males. This gene was also significantly enhanced in An. coluzzii males. Of the nineteen specific Ors whose expression was enhanced in females, the most highly enhanced Ors were Or80 and Or41 (6.2 and 6.9-fold respectively).

Fig. 3

Chemosensory gene expression in male vs female antennae of the zoophilic An. quadriannulatus.aOrs. bIrs.cGrs.dObps. The line indicates equal expression between the two species. In a, Orco was excluded. In b, Ir25a was excluded. Red dots indicate significantly differentiated expression between samples

Twenty-one Irs were detected in male antennae at TPM > 1, vs 28 in females. As in An. coluzzii, overall Ir expression was lower in males (467.5 vs 792.1 TPM), although less so than in An. coluzzii. The correlation between male and female expression was relatively high (R2 = 0.84). No Irs were exclusively expressed in males (Table 3, Fig. 3b). Ten Irs were significantly enhanced in An. quadriannulatus females, but only Ir7t and Ir100a were enhanced more than 6-fold, beyond what might be expected to result simply from the larger number of sensilla on the female antennae [35]. However, both these genes were expressed at < 5.5 TPM, quite a bit lower than in the antennae of female An. coluzzii [21].

Only 11 Grs were expressed in the male antennae vs 10 in females at TPM > 1, with four expressed at TPM > 5 (Fig. 3c). Overall Gr expression in An. quadriannulatus, as in its sibling species, was much higher in male antennae than in females (387.1 vs 35.2 TPM), and the correlation between sexes was very low (R2 = 0.007). Like in An. coluzzii male antennae, Gr33 was very highly expressed (361.4 TPM) and was the only Gr with significantly enhanced expression in males. As in An. coluzzii, Gr33 was absent in females (< 1 TPM). No Grs were significantly enhanced in female antennae.

Thirty Obps were detected at TPM > 1 in male antennae vs 25 in females. As in An. coluzzii, overall Obp expression was much lower than in males than in females (74,403 vs 114,141 TPM, respectively), and the correlation between sexes was relatively high (R2 = 0.81) (Table 3, Fig. 3d). Four Obps expressed > 50 TPM were significantly enhanced in males (Obp10, Obp25, Obp26 and Obp29), with their expression enhanced between 4.8–11.1-fold in both. The expression of three Obps (Obp2, Obp5 and Obp47) is significantly between 2.5–4.6-fold enhanced in female antennae.

The analysis of molecular function and protein membership of these differentially expressed genes between the male and female An. quandriannulatus was broadly similar to patterns seen in An. coluzzii. In An. quadriannulatus females, the top molecular functions were the terms ‘Catalytic activity’ and ‘Binding’, and ‘Transporter activity’ followed by ‘Molecular transducer activity’. In the male antennae, catalytic activity and binding were important, and with structural activity and transporter activity third and fourth, respectively. Furthermore, nucleic acid binding (PC00171), hydrolase activity (PC00121), and transferase activity (PC00220) were the top three classes by membership in female antennae, whereas the top three were hydrolase, nucleic acid binding, and oxidoreductase (PC00176) in males. Transmembrane signaling receptor activity was overrepresented (Fisher’s exact test: FDR = 0.018) in the male-enhanced genes, but was absent from the molecular functions overrepresented in female-biased genes.


By comparing chemosensory gene expression between the sexes of closely related species with different host and/or oviposition site preferences we may be able to identify candidate chemosensory genes that modulate important mosquito behaviors. Oviposition and host-seeking behaviors are exclusive to females mosquitoes, whereas the attraction to flowers is shared between the sexes. Chemosensory genes whose expression is strongly enhanced in or exclusive to male antennae may modulate male-specific olfactory-driven behavior, although at present there is no evidence that olfaction plays a role in mate recognition within the An. gambiae complex [37].

It had previously been reported that the olfaction gene repertoire in the antennae is similar between the sexes of An. coluzzii [5]. We found this as well, with relatively high correlation between the expression of Ors, Irs and Obps in the sexes of both species. The high expression of Gr33 in males of both species stands out. Nonetheless, some highly male- and female-biased genes were observed, some of which were also biased towards An. coluzzii or An. quadriannulatus.

While the male and female samples were processed by the same personnel using the same protocols, and were sequenced on the same platform around the same time, they were processed as separate batches, so batch effects may be present in the male-female comparisons. Therefore, we compared our results with previous data for An. coluzzii [5] to identify chemosensory genes that show consistent sex-specific expression. We also used qPCR on a small number of genes to confirm some of our results. Generally speaking, the chemosensory genes that were highly female-biased in our study were highly female-biased in the previous work by Pitts et al. as well [5], and the female-biased expression of two genes Orco and Ir7i was confirmed through qPCR.

In the male-biased genes however, there were some discrepencies. Five male-biased chemosensory genes were detected in both species in our study: Or27, Gr33, Obp10, Obp25 and Obp26. While Obp25 and Gr33 were shown to be female-biased previously [5], this was not the case for the others. Or27 was expressed around the same level in both sexes in that study and Obp10 and Obp26 were slightly or higly female-biased. However, of these genes the female-biased expression of Gr33 and Obp26 was examined and confirmed by qPCR. Therefore, at least some of the differences in expression observed between Pitts et al. [5] and our work may not be due to possible batch effects in our data.

Not much is known about the function of these genes, although AgOr27 appears to be a narrowly tuned to the terpenes fenchone and carvone [11], both of which are abundant in several plant species. Gr33 is the most highly expressed antennal chemosensory receptor gene, with the exception of Orco, in males of both species, but is all but absent from female antennae. Interestingly, the Ae. aegypti ortholog AaGr19 is expressed at very low levels in the antennae and palps of both sexes [24, 38], so its function in male antennae may be specific to Anopheles. The homolog of this receptor in Drosophila melanogaster is DmGr28, which has several splice forms with non-olfactory function. Interestingly, DmGr28b.c is expressed in or near the Johnston’s organ, an auditory organ at the base of the antennae, and could play a role in sound perception. Another splice form, DmGr28b(D), modulates negative thermotaxis [39], and DmGr28 also plays a role in larval dermal light detection [40]. Furthermore, it was recently shown that DmGr28 modulates the attraction of Drosophila larvae to ribonucleosides [41].

None of the traits modulated by the Drosophila orthologs of AgGr33 appear likely to be male-specific in mosquitoes. Although the detection of wingbeat frequencies plays a vital role during mosquito mating, females of several mosquito species were found to have a similar capacity to detect sound as males [42]. Heat gradient detection is modulated by AgTRPA1 in the antennae of female An. coluzzii [43], which is expressed at comparable levels in the antennae of both sexes. Therefore, the function of AgGr33 remains unclear.

The male-enhanced Obp25 and possibly male-biased Obp10 and Obp26 are expressed in the mosquito body at much lower levels [5], consistent with a role in the olfactory system. Their high expression levels in the male antennae is all the more remarkable given the lower overall expression of Obps in male antennae. Obps are among the most highly expressed genes in sensory tissues and are thought to encode proteins that facilitate solubilization of hydrophobic volatiles into the hemolymph, and transport them to olfactory neurons. This model is supported by the observation that OBPs can bind odorant molecules [16] and that the addition of OBPs to heterologous expression systems increases sensitivity to odorants [44]. Besides, it has been speculated based on the large number of AgObps vs AgOrs expressed in mosquito palps, that Obps may also function as odorant sinks that prevent some odorants from reaching olfactory or ionotropic receptors [5]. Whether Obp25 and Obp26 have a male-specific function in the olfactory system is unknown, but given that Obp25 and Obp26 are expressed at different levels between An. coluzzii and An. quadriannulatus female palps [21] and that all three are expressed in other olfactory organs as well [5, 21, 45], indicates their function extends beyond that.

Unfortunately, the biology of male mosquitoes remains poorly studied [27], and little is known about what differences may exist in sensory perception between the males of these species. Conceivably, male An. coluzzii could use human odor as part of the various cues used to determine swarming site locations, which tend to be located inside or near villages [26]. A single study provided some support that An. coluzzii males are attracted to human odor [4], but this result needs confirmation. Furthermore, the expression of AgOr1 and AgOr8 in male antennae and palps, respectively [5, 7], suggests that males may be capable of detecting hosts. These two genes have been linked to vertebrate odorants in females [7, 8], although it should be noted that the detection of octenol by Or8 could fulfill other roles, as the expression of this receptor is preserved in non-blood feeding Toxorhynchites mosquitoes [46]. Furthermore, if An. coluzzii males use some host odor cues, for example to locate their swarming sites near human habitations, it is not clear that they therefore share the host preference of females. As was shown previously and in this study, the repertoire of chemosensory genes largely overlaps between the sexes in both An. coluzzii [5] and An. quadriannulatus.

Among the chemosensory genes that are the focus of this study, only six are differentially expressed in An. coluzzii vs An. quadriannulatus male antennae. The expression of Or23 and Gr26 is enhanced in An. quadriannulatus males. This mimics the expression female antennae where the expression of both is significantly enhanced in An. quadriannulatus [21]. Of the four male An. coluzzii-biased genes, the expression of Ir75k and Ir41c are also enhanced in female antennae of this species [21]. The An. coluzzii-biased expression of Ir75g and Ir41t.2 should be interpreted with caution, as these genes are represented at much higher relative levels in our data than in the previous work [5], and our qPCR data does not support the higher expression of Ir75g in An. coluzzii male vs females.

Irs have been linked to a variety of specific behaviors in Drosophila. DmIr64a in conjunction with the co-receptor DmIr8a, modulates acid avoidance behavior [47], and DmIr84a contributes to male courtship behavior via the detection of phenylacetic acid and phenylacetaldehyde. These two compounds are widely found in fruit and other plant tissues [48]. In An. coluzzii, Ir41c modulates the detection of amines, whereas Ir75k respondes to carboxylic acids, a class of compounds which includes major components of human sweat [49]. Irs play a role in host recognition in Ae. aegypti, as ORCO knock out mutants can still locate a host, although they lose their human host preference [50]. More recently it was shown that Ae. aegypti lacking the co-receptor Ir8a do not respond to lactic acid and other acidic volatiles, and have reduced attraction to human odor [51]. Recent work in An. coluzzii is consistent with the co-receptor Ir8 being necessary for the detection of acids, whereas co-receptors Ir25a and Ir76b are needed for amine sensing [49].

If these Anopheles species make use of olfactory cues as part of the mate recognition process, the chemosensory genes underlying the detection of these cues may have diverged between males of the two species. The presence of contact sex pheromones to facilitate attraction to and recognition of conspecific mates has been supported in several mosquito species (reviewed in [37]), but data are lacking for the An. gambiae complex. It has been proposed that sex pheromones play a role in mate recognition between An. coluzzii, An. gambiae (s.s.) and other species, either in the form of a contact sex pheromone, or a low volatile pheromone acting when the sexes are in very close proximity [37]. Contact pheromones involved in mating have been inferred in other mosquito species. In Aedes albopictus, which can distinguish between conspecific and heterospecific females by touch, the prothoracic and mesothoracic tarsi have been implicated as the site where the pheromone is perceived [52]. One study proposed the presence of a volatile sex pheromone in Culiseta inornata, a species in which males mate with females shortly after emerging from the pupal stage [53], but a later study was not able to repeat this result [54].

Another group of chemosensory genes of interest are those genes that are (mostly) exclusive to female antennae, as this may indicate a role in host-seeking or oviposition. Antennae of female An. coluzzii contain approximately 2.9-fold more trichoid sensilla, which express AgOrs [35], than those in males, and other olfactory sensilla on the antennae are approximately 4-fold more abundant in females as well [55]. Overall olfactory genes expression is therefore significantly higher in female antennae [5], and this is what we found as well. This complicates the identification of female-biased chemosensory genes, but chemosensory genes enhanced more than might be expected based on the higher number of sensilla in females may be of interest.

Therefore, we focus here on genes > 6-fold enhanced in female antennae. In An. coluzzii this set includes three Ors (Or2, Or23 and Or45) and five Irs (Ir7w, Ir7t, Ir100a, Ir7u and Ir7i) and Obp2. However, Ir7u and Ir7i are relatively lowly expressed even in females (6.6 TPM and 9.3 TPM), casting some doubt on their biological relevance. Ir100a and Ir7t are more than 6-fold enhanced in An. quadriannulatus females vs males as well, but interestingly Ir7w, Ir7t and Ir100a are between 2.5–3.4-fold higher expressed in the female antennae of An. coluzzii vs An. quadriannulatus [21]. Possibly, this indicates the involvement of these genes in species-specific differences in female behaviors, such as the human host preference of An. coluzzii. The expression of Or45 is also significantly enhanced in An. quadriannulatus, but only 1.5-fold times.

Differential oviposition site preference between species could also result in female-biased chemosensory gene expression. The breeding sites of An. coluzzii result from human activity, and can consist of rice fields, drainage ditches, and reservoirs in savannah areas and urban pools in forested areas [56]. This differs from An. gambiae (s.s.), which prefers more rain-dependent and ephemeral habitats [57,58,59]. Not much information is available on the oviposition sites used by An. quadriannulatus. Larvae of this species have been collected from temporary pools adjacent to a river, suggesting their larval habitat is similar to that of An. gambiae (s.s.) [60]. They are also known to share larval habitats with An. arabiensis [61], although the volatiles used to identify preferred breeding sites may differ between the females of the two species [62].


Our comparison of species and sex-specific chemosensory gene expression in the antennae of the anthropophilic malaria vector An. coluzzii and the zoophilic An. quadriannulatus has identified a small number of genes that show expression patterns that may underlie sex- and/or species-specific behavior. At the moment, a dearth of information on crucial aspects of the behavior of these species prevents a fuller interpretation of the results. Future and ongoing work on the attraction of the Anopheles males to host and and or swarming site odors, will assist in elucidation the relevance of the expression patterns observed here.

Availability of data and materials

The dataset(s) supporting the conclusions of this article are available in the NCBI Sequence Read Archive repository, BioProject ID PRJNA608544 (male data) and BioProject ID PRJNA400609 (female data). The gene expression data supporting the conclusions of this article are included with the article and its additional files.



Count per million


Ionotropic receptor


Gustatory receptor


Odorant binding protein


Olfactory receptor


Transcripts per million


Fold change


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We are thankful to BEIReources for providing mosquito eggs and to two anonymous reviewers for comments on the manuscript.


This study was supported by NIH/NIAID Grant 1R01 AI085079 to MAS. The funding body played no role in the design of the study and collection, analysis and interpretation of the data and in writing the manuscript.

Author information




GA and LVC carried out data collection, analysis and manuscript preparation. ZPH carried our data collection and analyses. WT helped plan experiments and participated in manuscript preparation. MAS conceived, planned and supervised experiments and carried out manuscript preparation. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Michel Andre Slotman.

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Supplementary information

Additional file 1: Table S1.

Primer and Probe sequences for qPCR.

Additional file 2: Table S2.

Mapping statistics.

Additional file 3: Figure S1.

Level of gene expression and LogFC between (a) male antennae of An. coluzzii and An. quadriannulatus, (b) male and female An. coluzzii antennae, and (c) male and female An. quadriannulatus antennae. Genes with significantly enhanced expression are indicated by a red dot.

Additional file 4: Data S1.

Gene expression data for the male antennae of An. coluzzii vs An. quadriannulatus.

Additional file 5: Figure S2.

Levels of Ir expression in An. coluzzii male antennae observed in this study vs that of Pitts et al. [5].

Additional file 6: Data S2.

Gene expression data for An. coluzzii male vs female antennae.

Additional file 7: Data S3.

Gene expression data for An. quadriannulatus male vs female antennae.

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Athrey, G., Popkin-Hall, Z., Cosme, L.V. et al. Species and sex-specific chemosensory gene expression in Anopheles coluzzii and An. quadriannulatus antennae. Parasites Vectors 13, 212 (2020).

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  • Anopheles
  • Chemosensation
  • Olfaction
  • Host seeking
  • Mating